CHICAGO — It’s not Tracy Claeys’ problem. But it is his reality, the sort of headline that burns into the subconscious, the kind of images that can either rally a community or tear it apart, strand by strand.
Crazy hearing the black men in the locker room rn. We are legit scared. Falco Heights is right up the street from us….
— 〽️ImaShowEm〽️ (@MelloYllw21) July 7, 2016
That was Minnesota wide receiver Melvin Hollins Jr., tweeting in response to the graphic death of Philando Castile. Earlier this month, Castile, an African-American man who worked at a local Montessori school, was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul — the aftermath of which was captured on video and livestreamed to Facebook by his girlfriend.
The Castile incident came a few days after a black man in Baton Rouge, La., Alton Sterling, was shot and killed by law enforcement. The series of events incited several Gophers to take to social media in response, including tight end Duke Anyawanu …
EVEN IN MINNESOTA!!! THIS IS MADNESS!!! Something has to give, America…unbelievable. https://t.co/cj564xra6P
— Duke Anyanwu, Jr. (@DAnyanwu_81) July 7, 2016
Running back Rodney Smith …
Cousin text me telling me to be safe. Being a black young man is scary sometimes.
— Rodney Smith (@Numerouno1_) July 7, 2016
And wideout Eric Carter …
Crazy world , prayers for all dealing with these deaths in the past 48 hours . system begging to be changed , let’s do something about it !
— Eric icky Carter (@LilEazyVert9) July 7, 2016
Claeys insists he isn’t a political beast by nature, but neither is his head in the sand. A few weeks back, the Gophers football coach met with his team to discuss the shootings, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the importance of constructive — and not destructive — responses to a hot-button topic across the country.
“And I told the kids that if they wanted to participate (in protests), I had no problems with that,” the coach told LandOf10.com Monday during Big Ten Media Days. “As long as it was peaceful, and it wasn’t a University of Minnesota event. Because it wasn’t a University of Minnesota problem, it’s a society problem.”
It’s one that’s attracting attention. And celebrities. Including, most notably, basketball icon Michael Jordan, an athlete who spent the last three decades avoiding politics the way a 6-year-old dodges broccoli.
“I can no longer stay silent,” Jordan wrote in a statement to ESPN’s The Undefeated. “We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers — who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all — are respected and supported.”
The challenge — in the Twin Cities, Louisiana, Chicago, everywhere — is that when emotions and reactions run so hot, compromise is as elusive as a wet bar of soap.
For his part, Claeys isn’t interested in dictating the conversation. Just the boundaries.
“I think it’s important you take time to visit with your kids about stuff like that,” the Gophers football coach said.
“I also told (them) that if they show up at something and it doesn’t turn peaceful and they get arrested, they have to understand what they’re putting on the line.
“But I don’t want to — I don’t know. I think sometimes young people get pressured sometimes to get involved in some of those things. But they’re old enough that they need to make that decision themselves (as to) how much they want to be involved. But I have no problem with that, as long as it’s peaceful.”
Which is important, given that relations between black athletes and the Minneapolis police department have seen better days. In June, the head of the Minneapolis Police union, Lt. Bob Kroll, referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as a “terrorist organization.”
When members of the WNBA’s Minnesota Lynx turned up to a July 12 game wearing Black Lives Matter shirts as warmups, shirts that featured the names of Castile and Sterling on the back, four off-duty officers were assigned to work as security at Target Center left the building in protest.
“I really haven’t paid attention to (that),” Claeys said. “I mean, they’re all over 18 and they have their own rights.
“But like I said, they also need to understand the situation. And it’s a situation where they can be a positive part of the solution if there’s a problem there. But they’re not going to resolve it on their own, and they need to understand that.”
Black warmups have also been worn by the New York Liberty, the Indiana Fever and the Phoenix Mercury. The WNBA announced Saturday that it would rescind its initial fines — $5,000 to each franchise, $500 to each player for violating the uniform code — levied against the three franchises.
Lives matter. Opinions do, too.
“It’s a personal thing,” Claeys said. “And it’s everybody’s right to be involved.”
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler