Social media among sports figures has been filled with calls to fight racism since George Floyd died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Coaches have been using the hashtag #CoachesStandForJustice and challenged one another to take an anti-racism pledge. Some have talked about bringing together urban and rural teams for games and away-from-the-field activities. Athletes have involved themselves in protests, food drives and other community events.
A former title-winning Minnesota college coach who is in his school’s Hall of Fame has gone deeper than most, posting a 1,000+ word essay about how he failed because he didn't speak out earlier.
Jim Cella, the former head soccer coach at Concordia-Moorhead, posted the essay on Twitter this week. Cella, 57, graduated from St. John's and coached the Concordia men's team from 1992-2003, winning two MIAC titles, and also coached the women's team in 2001 and 2002. He is now the school's Sports Information Director.
“I have won MIAC championships at every step along my journey but when I reflect on my time spent coaching, I have failed because I never actively spoke up and became involved,” he wrote. “Like many who are involved in athletics, I was the coach who always said ‘I don't see color’ I only saw student-athletes who played the game the right way, were good teammates and helped drive the team to its goals. Because of the recent events I know now that viewpoint is uninformed.”
In an email exchange, Cella explained why he decided to write at length: “I wanted to make a statement about my own personal 30-year experience as a student/athlete, assistant coach, head coach and administrator in the MIAC and let the coaches in the conference understand how loud of a voice they have when it comes to being an educator, and mentor, to their student-athletes. I think coaches forget how much impact they have on the lives of their players and I wanted to ask them to use their voice to become actively involved.
“One of the main catalysts behind the statement was my children. Sitting around the dinner table and hearing them discuss their beliefs and the need for change really lit a fire in me to follow their lead and become more involved. The passion for standing up for what is right, social activism and equality in my son’s and daughter’s generation, is contagious and I wanted to show them that, as a father, I was listening.”
Cella is now the sports information director at Concordia-Moorhead, which has a black enrollment of 2% among its 2,100 students while making efforts in recent years to expand its recruiting of students of color. The campus is 85% white.
“The biggest challenge for a school like Concordia is changing the demographics of the students and student/athletes we recruit,” Cella said in his email, “ Concordia has traditionally been built around students from the small towns and communities in areas which are predominantly white.”
So what should coaches be doing?
Cella wrote on Twitter: “I know that most coaches in the MIAC have already held meetings with your teams to discuss, and react, to the events of the past week. I applaud you for that. But that is only a start. The purpose of my challenge is to create a plan of action to go forward: Be a voice for change and don't stop. Continue to be actively involved in the issues of racism, discrimination and social injustice. Be a voice for change on the issues when you first meet with your team in the fall, winter or spring.
“Talk about how black lives matter during the second week of practice, after the first game, midway through the season, when times are tough and when you are having success.”
St. Thomas men’s basketball coach John Tauer, who is also a psychology professor at the school, thinks that a build-up of recent events – culminating with Floyd’s killing – has been a factor in why coaches are speaking out in greater numbers and more forcefully..
And the lack of sports has been a contributor. Playing, watching and coaching hasn't been an option for almost three months.
"Sports can distract us from the real world," said Tauer, whose teams won national Division III titles in 2011 and 2016. "But there’s no escaping to sports right now."
He added that in "some ways that's a blessing in disguise. Let’s forget about the Green Bay Packers as the enemy, Let's forget about the Wisconsin Badgers as the enemy. The enemy is the pandemic. The enemy is racism. This could be the most unique opportunity in our lifetime to bring people together."
Tauer’s St. Thomas team was in the midst of preparing for an NCAA Division III Sweet 16 tournament game against archrival St. John’s when the season was suddenly ended in mid-March by the coronavirus pandemic. One sport after another shut down, starting with the pros and followed by winter college and high school tournaments.
“When you combine COVID-19 with events of the last 10 days and people having more time, the question becomes how you turn adversity into a blessing,” he said. “We certainly talked about it when our season ended abruptly. It was one of the most difficult talks I ever had with my team. … I think it’s on all of us to be really, really wise in how we use this opportunity.”
So what happens now?
Or, as Cella put it in his essay: “Think about the difference you would make if a graduating class had heard your voice for change on social injustice issues being taught on their team for four straight years.”
Specific actions are in short supply, which is common to much of the talk in response to Floyd’s death. There are ideas that need to be executed. Coaches can accept the challenge to speak out and change, but how will they meet it?
Tauer said success can eventually be judged by whether the talk really turns into action.
“How do we make what we thought was normal feel subpar,” he said, “compared to what we can create?”
You can read Cella's entire essay here.