The Gophers men’s basketball team gathered Monday for a Zoom call.
The topic was race. And coach Richard Pitino told his black players that, as a white man, he doesn’t know what they’re going through.
Then he just listened.
“We acknowledge there are problems,” Pitino said Wednesday. “And how can we all fix it together.”
A week after George Floyd’s death in south Minneapolis, a black man’s death where a white police officer faces murder charges, Pitino said his players expressed anger, fear and frustration. With their emotions still simmering, the dialogue began about being part of changes together, creating a sense of unity.
Peaceful protests. Speaking out for justice and equality. Pitino is allowing his players to do that. He asked them how they’ve experienced racism, and what they can do to make things better.
“This isn’t just a Minneapolis or Minnesota problem. This is a worldwide problem,” Pitino said. “How am I as a white male and coach going to support black athletes who come into my program and who I recruit? Let them have a voice, explain and teach us, and help us learn how to make change. Making sure I’m empowering them moving forward is so important.”
Many leaders around the country have made statements to support Floyd’s family and are calling for change. Few statements have been specific on what that actually means.
Pitino said he would tell recruits that he doesn’t know the exact answers yet. But they’re working toward change.
“You have to be upfront and honest with them,” he said. “You have to tell them how disgusted [I am] with what happened in Minneapolis, but also explain to them I’ve lived here for eight years. And one of the things I love about Minnesota is how safe and welcoming it feels. How diverse it is.”
Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle and his 23 head coaches participated in a virtual call Wednesday. They are all white. While lacking diversity at the top, Pitino said part of the discussion was adding more throughout the department.
“[Gophers coaches talked] about some of the things they want to do moving forward to make sure we’re doing more,” Pitino said. “I know that’s always on Mark’s mind and the athletic department’s mind: To make sure we hire a staff who is really good but also making sure that it is very diverse as well.”
Pitino conducted a FaceTime call on Tuesday while forward Isaiah Ihnen was on Lake Street helping with a cleanup and donation effort. Ihnen’s teammates also have been involved in the community. The Gophers are planning a supplies drive next week as well.
Watching the video of Floyd’s death was “heartbreaking and sickening as you can ever see,” Pitino said. His players and staff members have been part of peaceful protests since the incident. There was concern for their safety and health with the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“And in one of the protests on the 35W bridge, you see a tanker going toward the crowd,” Pitino said, “There were members of our team there. We just had to check in with everybody to make sure they were safe and they were OK.”
More than anything, Pitino understands by talking to his players since Floyd’s death that they want to do something of substance and something of value to enact change.
“There are little things we can do for our community right now,” Pitino said. “There are resources needed and money needed. Obviously, the larger problem is going to be a huge fight, and we need to be a part of it.”