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Sports Pulse: Athletes have gone to social media to share their feelings about what happened to George Floyd

USA TODAY

Sure, some sports are back. But “sports” as we know them are largely still on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic. Today is Day 89 without sports. 🏀

Prior to the last couple weeks, it would have been shocking to see a college football coach like South Carolina’s Will Muschamp leading his players on a walk to the Governor’s Mansion to take part in a peaceful protest or Kentucky’s Mark Stoops wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt in downtown Lexington. 

That’s not a commentary on them as people, it’s about the nature of their profession. College coaches make a lot money, but job security isn’t a luxury many of them have. They get criticized enough for what play they called on third-and-3; why complicate their lives by getting involved in political issues or advocating for a position that could hurt their image with a significant portion of their fan base? The inclination for most of them is to play it safe. 

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So whether it was Ole Miss’ Lane Kiffin giving a speech at a protest in Oxford, Miss., or Jeremy Pruitt appearing with his Tennessee players on Friday — again, all of these occurring in Southern states that tilt conservative — the images were powerful because they have been so rare. 

As Stoops acknowledged, “I think most of you know me, I keep things pretty tight to the vest with the media, but there’s no more of that on this issue. Everybody needs to get off the bench and make a difference, stand for something. We’re not going to tolerate any more racism and social problems. We want to make a difference and be a part of the solution. That’s why we’re here.”

It’s not totally unusual for coaches to run for office or get involved in political causes after their careers. Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, for instance, is currently favored to win the Republican nomination for the Senate seat in Alabama. But doing it while coaching? That’s often a recipe for blowback.

Even John Calipari, who might have been the most popular person in the state of Kentucky in 2010, got harassed into cancelling a re-election fundraiser in 2010 for then-Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat. Calipari later went on Facebook and released a statement: “I know how politically charged this state is and I recognize that the Big Blue Nation comes from both sides of the aisle. I appreciate every elected official who supports the University of Kentucky, regardless of party.”

Here are five other coaches who got criticized for publicly supporting a political cause: 

Dean Smith, North Carolina

Perhaps the most well-known activist who has ever coached college sports, Smith was a strong advocate for desegregation in the 1960s and recruited Charlie Scott as the first black scholarship athlete at North Carolina. Smith identified as a liberal and was outspoken about issues like the death penalty and the Vietnam War, both of which he opposed.

He also publicly endorsed many Democratic candidates for office, including the well-chronicled 1990 Senate race where Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt unsuccessfully tried to unseat Jesse Helms. In a state that tilted conservative, Smith’s politics were an irritant to many fans. But his 879-254 career record with two national titles made it easier for them to accept. 

Joe Paterno, Penn State

“I’m here because, like President Ford, I’ll be damned if I’ll sit still while people who can’t carry George Bush’s shoes ridicule him!” Paterno said at the crescendo of a three-minute speech in support of George H.W. Bush’s nomination at the 1988 Republican National Convention.

Paterno had been friends with Bush for many years before he won the presidency and had campaigned for him in the primaries in 1980 and again in 1988. But the convention speech in New Orleans, which noted that his previous visit to the Superdome had been to win the 1982 national championship, wasn’t received well by everyone.

According to an Associated Press account at the time, Gov. Robert Casey said it was “probably not a good thing for the university” to go to the convention and the student government president Seth Williams said it was “wrong for an academic institution to actually involve itself in partisan politics.”

Bill McCartney, Colorado

There have been few marriages in the history of college sports that were as oddly matched and yet successful as McCartney and Colorado. At a school in the Rocky Mountains that was known in the late 1980s and early 1990s for its hippie/granola vibe, McCartney was a firebrand evangelical Christian who constantly clashed with campus groups and the ACLU while turning Colorado’s program into a national powerhouse.

In 1992, McCartney sparked protests when he used a university lectern to call gay people “an abomination against Almighty God” while campaigning for a state amendment that would have prevented anti-discrimination protections for gays. He was accused of handing out Bibles with the university logo on them.

According to an anecdote from Gary Barnett in the Chicago Tribune, McCartney attended an anti-abortion rally one year the night before Colorado played Oklahoma. At one point, the backlash almost caused McCartney to leave for SMU where his values would have been more in alignment with the school. Instead, he stayed and won the 1990 national title. 

Rick Majerus, St. Louis

Politically active his entire life and a staunch Democrat in the mold of his father, who was a union organizer in Milwaukee, Majerus had no idea he was stepping into a huge controversy in January of 2008 when he appeared at a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries. When the TV cameras found him, Majerus — a Catholic who was coaching at a Jesuit university — said publicly that he was pro-choice and in favor of stem-cell research.

Those positions put him at odds with St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, who threatened to deny Communion for Majerus said the school should punish him. Majerus didn’t back down and argued that he wasn’t representing the university at the rally and that working there didn’t obligate him to leave his beliefs at the door.

“I’ll campaign and help out whoever the Democratic party candidate is this year,” Majerus told ESPN. “I’m still registered to vote in Utah, and I’ll fly to Utah to vote. I’ll miss practice to do that — and I’ll miss a meal before I miss practice.”

Mike Leach, Washington State

At a 2016 campaign rally in Spokane, Leach offered a character endorsement of then-candidate Donald Trump, recalling how he had made a cold call to Trump Tower 10 years ago and ultimately ended up developing a relationship with the man who would eventually become president.

“I know personally what a warm, caring person he is and how he has a lot of dimension to his personality and thinks about everyone,” Leach said.

After the rally, Washington State released a statement saying that faculty had the right to free speech but made clear that “the opinions of any one employee do not in any way speak for the institution.”

Leach’s continued public support for Trump and dalliances into politics have gotten him into some controversy. Notably, in 2018, he retweeted a doctored video of a speech made by former President Barack Obama that completely changed its meaning. The incident cost Washington State $1.6 million in future estate gifts from people altering their donation plans, according to the school. Leach left earlier this year for Mississippi State. 

Sports video of the day

Had COVID-19 not intervened, Sunday would have been the French Open final. Odds are, that would’ve meant Rafael Nadal playing for a stunning 13th title at Roland Garros and tying Roger Federer’s all-time record of 20 Grand Slams. To celebrate an achievement that we can imagine would’ve happened, here are Nadal’s 19 Grand Slam championship points. 

What we’re reading

RACIST:  Present and former University of Cincinnati players call for Marge Schott’s name to be removed from baseball stadium 

NFL:Larry Fitzgerald’s essay on racial injustice

NBA:Milwaukee Bucks players march for racial justice 

MIKE JONES:NFL owners need to step up in the wake of Roger Goodell’s message 

COLLEGES: Iowa strength coach placed on leave after former players’ complaints surface 

MLS: Columbus Crew midfielder alleges racial profiling by police 

Sports on TV

NFL (classic):Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Rams, Nov. 19, 2018, 4 p.m. ET, NFL Network

NBA (classic): 1986 NBA Finals Game 6, Houston Rockets at Boston Celtics, 6 p.m. ET, NBA TV

MLB (classic):1985 National League Championship Series Game 6, St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers, 2 p.m. ET, MLB Network 

NHL (classic):2009 Stanley Cup Finals Game 7, Pittsburgh Penguins at Detroit Red Wings, 9 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network

Soccer (classic): 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup semifinal, USA vs. England, 7:30 p.m. ET, followed by the final, USA vs. Netherlands, 9:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1

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