Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin, part of a unity walk on the campus Saturday along with athletes and coaches in various sports as well as athletics administrators, said he was “proud to stand with his players” in the fight against racial injustice.
“It’s something that the football team and entire athletic department did together after listening to our players throughout the week about what we could do to support them,” Kiffin told ESPN. “The important thing, though, is that this is just the start.”
Kiffin told ESPN that players made it abundantly clear that they wanted to see a Confederate monument on the Ole Miss campus moved.
“After hearing their voices, I fully support them wanting that statue moved,” Kiffin said.
Already, university administrators, student leaders and faculty leaders had recommended that the marble statue of a saluting Confederate soldier be moved from its current spot near the main administrative building to a Civil War cemetery in a more-secluded spot on campus. But wanting more information, the state College Board earlier this year tabled the university’s resolution to relocate the statue.
The monument was vandalized last Saturday, and according to the Oxford Eagle, police arrested one person at the scene that evening. The vandalism occurred as people demonstrated across the country in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.
“We’re going to work together to make sure things change. They have to change. This is a good step, but just the first step,” said Kiffin, entering his first season as Ole Miss’ coach.
Ole Miss’ unity walk started on the track and ended on the football practice fields, where several people spoke, including Kiffin, Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter, Ole Miss women’s basketball coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin and Oxford mayor Robyn Tannehill.
The Ole Miss coaches and players wore blue shirts that read: “UNITY” on the front. Several carried signs ranging from “BLACK LIVES MATTER” to “SILENCE IS NOT OK” to “I AM GEORGE FLOYD.”
Ole Miss athletics’ Twitter feed posted video from the walk.
𝙐𝙎𝙀 𝙔𝙊𝙐𝙍 𝙑𝙊𝙄𝘾𝙀
— Ole Miss Athletics (@OleMissSports) June 6, 2020
Ole Miss football player Ryder Anderson, a senior defensive end, also spoke at the end of the walk.
“We are here because racism is here,” Anderson said. “We are here because police brutality is here, because systematic oppression is here all across America, including Mississippi, including right here in Oxford. So my challenge to you is to fight it.”
That challenge to fight was also felt in Tampa, Florida, where USF senior cornerback KJ Sails organized a unity walk in Tampa on Saturday that drew not only teammates, coaches and others across USF athletics, but members of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, Titus O’Neil from WWE and members of the Tampa Bay community.
Sails, a Tampa native, wanted to do something to contribute in some way and on Thursday, he took to social media to ask those in the area to join him for the walk.
Despite a steady rain on Saturday, between 300-400 people participated. That includes head football coach Jeff Scott, men’s basketball coach Brian Gregory, women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez, volleyball coach Jolene Shepardson, athletic director Michael Kelly and former USF players as well, including Sam Barrington and current Green Bay Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
“We walked peacefully, and there was no chaos. We simply walked as one, and I feel like it spoke measures to the world,” Sails said in a phone interview with ESPN’s Andrea Adelson after the walk. “It’s not about color. It’s about coming together as one, as a community, to show that together we can sow change.”
Scott said nearly every member of the USF football team attended Saturday’s walk, remarkable considering this is the first time they have all been together in person since the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to team activities back in March. Bulls players are not scheduled to resume voluntary on-campus workouts until next week.
“It was a very powerful statement,” Scott said. “We feel a football team is one of the greatest examples in our society of people coming together from different races and different backgrounds and being able to come together as one. That message of unity was preached from our players starting on Monday. I really like what I have seen from the guys taking some meaningful steps this week in bringing everyone together.”
The walk went through a historic black neighborhood and ended at the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which Sails attended growing up. He addressed the crowd in front of it, saying, in part, “Being a young black father of a 2-year-old son who thinks the world of me made me question how many George Floyds and Emmett Tills does it to take for them to stop killing blacks? Watching 46-year-old George Floyd cry out for his mother made me feel hopeless. All I can think is that could have been me. It could have been you. What if it was your daughter or your son?”