ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Dan MacLean saw the influence Maurice Ways had on his teammates, and he wanted to maximize that positive.
MacLean, the longtime football coach at Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills, Mich., watched as Ways constantly reminded teammates about their roles within the team dynamic. Ways emphasized to his teammates why they were important to the football program, whether they were a starting linebacker or a third-string running back.
Five years later, Ways is influencing a bigger arena: the University of Michigan community. He’s starting with its athletes.
Ways, 21, has found a voice in social activism at Michigan. While many may recognize him as a wide receiver on the football team, that is a one-dimensional perception he wants to dispel. He’s becoming a serious figure in the community by discussing campus and national issues that involve race, class and gender.
For Ways, it’s important to develop a voice through football and to develop one away from the sport. He’s learning to not only be a strong communicator but also a thoughtful listener.
“I want to use football as a vehicle,” Ways said during Michigan’s spring practices, prior to the program’s trip to Rome. “It’s important for me to use my platform for positivity and to speak up when it’s time for me to speak up. And to know how to listen and stay silent when it’s time to stay silent.”
— Moe Ways (@MoeWays) December 19, 2016
Ways’ awakening to his social consciousness came within the last year, as movements such as Black Lives Matter and issues surrounding the election of Donald Trump as president came into the national spotlight.
Sports have become a prism for those issues. Those movements and the athletes who emphasized their stances in demonstrative ways — whether it was former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality, or college football players holding a fist in the air — resonated with Ways.
“They speak on account that they want to be heard,” Ways said. “I took a hold of that and the issues, what I was talking about, those things hit home for me. And I wanted to do that, too — use my voice.”
Personal growth through sports
Ways didn’t plan to be a voice for social causes. Until recently, his time between football and schoolwork barely allowed him to be a part of student organizations.
“It just happened,” Ways said. “When I saw things happen that I didn’t agree with, or that I felt strongly about, I spoke up. It opened doors for me. So I’m very glad I did that.”
At Detroit Country Day, Ways was on the football team. He played basketball. Through the athletic department, he volunteered with developmentally disabled adults at Angel’s Place, a nonprofit organization in southeast Michigan that provides services and residential homes to people with developmental disabilities.
— Moe Ways (@MoeWays) March 13, 2013
MacLean saw how Ways cultivated his maturity through sports and through his involvement in the school community. As a sophomore trying out for the varsity football team, Ways counted solely on his talent to win a spot on the roster, but he was assigned to the junior varsity.
Ways was disappointed, MacLean explained, but didn’t sulk or complain. Instead, he channeled his energies into building himself into a better football player.
“That was a pivotal moment for him,” MacLean said. “He realized it’s not just talent alone that’s going to get you there. You have to put in the work, and the time, and you have to become invested in your teammates and what’s in the best interest of the team. And I’ve never seen someone handle something like that better than Maurice.”
MacLean also noticed that Ways wanted to become a well-rounded individual. That has continued at Michigan.
“He took a certain philosophy seriously,” MacLean said. “Not being one-dimensional in terms of his athletic pursuits, but also using all of the things he has, with respect to his educational background, and using them to cast light on issues that are important to him, and making a difference.
“He’s realized, ‘I’ve got things that are worth caring about and speaking about.’ ”
At a town hall on Martin Luther King Jr. Day that examined sports, athletes and their intersection with societal issues, Ways wasn’t one of the featured panelists. Yet he stood up and spoke about the decision he and several teammates made to stand on the sideline at Michigan Stadium with their fists held aloft during the national anthem. They were protesting the death of Terence Crutcher, who was unarmed when he was shot to death Sept. 16 by a Tulsa, Okla., police officer.
“We didn’t do it for anybody else’s approval,” Ways told the audience. “We did it for us as black men. We’ve got to make a stand together on Saturday.”
At a symposium in February that examined the black male athlete, Ways isolated some statistics about the University of Michigan: Of more than 43,000 students at Michigan, only 740 are black men. Of those, 100 are student-athletes. And 51 of those student-athletes are on the football team.
Ways and former NFL and Michigan standout Braylon Edwards discussed ways they confronted stereotypes facing them as black men and black athletes in a largely homogeneous college community.
Ways discussed his goal to finish a four-year degree program in international studies in three years. Edwards, meanwhile, encouraged people to find examples of role models in their own community, and to champion them and their successes.
“For every time you hear something bad, you can look at someone like Warde Manuel and think, ‘Hey, he went to Michigan and played football and now he’s the [athletic director] at the most powerful university,’ ” Edwards said. “For every negative story that’s put out there — and negativity sells — there are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of black athletes doing it just fine.”
Ways was thoughtful in his presentation, a 14-minute speech he planned at the advice of his parents, Patricia and Marcus.
“Coach [Jim] Harbaugh always says, ‘Believe in what you believe in and know why,’ ” Ways said. “Take a stand for it. Know why you’re taking a stand for it. Have the facts about it and speak up when it’s time for you to be heard.”
A voice that matters
With social issues at the forefront on college campuses — in some ways, a microcosm of society — Ways sees value in using his voice.
“Somebody has to do it,” Ways said. “We have a big enough platform, a big enough voice and a big enough influence that when we speak up, people will listen. When you use that platform for positivity and to help be a change agent, that can go a long way. Other schools, other athletes should take heed, only if they know what they’re standing up for, and if they really believe in it.
“But if guys are conscious of what’s going on, and if they have the heart to do so, they should do it.”
Ways wants to help college athletes — “minority athletes, especially black men” — such as himself make the transition from high school to college.
During the spring semester, a freshman on the Michigan men’s track and field team approached Ways and thanked him for speaking up. Ways didn’t name the athlete. However, he spoke of the athlete’s encounters of facing stereotypes, of being labeled as “just an athlete.”
Ways gave him his phone number and offered his help. Anything you need me to do, let me know. Call me, text me.
“By hearing me talk, by hearing me speak up, he has a whole new mindset about how to go about being here at Michigan and making sure that he does well,” Ways said. “That was really cool, to know that people are listening, and that people understand what I’m talking about.”