Jimmy Lake wants to set the path for progress.
Those are the words he said. And, though it’s an undeniably difficult topic to discuss, the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota may have helped to pave that path.
“We’re definitely at a different point in our country right now than we ever have been before, especially in my 43 years on this Earth,” said Lake, one of 11 African-American Power Five head coaches, in an interview with the Pac-12 Network on Tuesday. “And I think we’re actually heading towards a better place, in my opinion.
“There’s been social unrest before in my lifetime with Rodney King. That happened almost 20 years ago. This feels way different. I think the horrible murder of George Floyd that we all witnessed — nine minutes of a police officer being on his neck — really stuck with a lot of people, not just minorities. It irritated and angered and saddened people of all walks of life — white, Black, brown — across the whole world. It’s sad, but I think that unfortunate incident, among the other incidents that happened prior to that, has really set us up now for some huge change in this country.
“This is one of my messages to our team: as long as we keep the story being about the horrific events that have happened to men and women of color for years, especially the horrific one that just happened in Minnesota, then change will happen. What we can’t do is what has happened in years past with the Rodney King episode. The message changed. The story started to be about the riots, about the looting, about people versus the police. I think we have to make sure the message is the injustice that has happened to George Floyd and countless others. If we remain on that topic, true change will happen.”
It’s a topic UW’s first-year head coach hasn’t hesitated to address. In the wake of Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, Lake says he first reached out to UW’s leadership council to request a meeting. He then personally contacted several UW football players “that I felt would have definitely taken this very seriously.”
He contacted the program’s full-time staff members, and directed his position coaches to speak with their players and made it clear that they were there to talk and listen. Then he organized a team meeting. Over Zoom, he saw “all walks of life, all different colors.” He simultaneously saw one team and dozens of irreplaceable perspectives.
“It was an extremely emotional meeting, and it was really good. It was really good,” Lake repeated. “I started off with my thoughts on the situation, and I think all of us of color have had some sort of racism in our life — myself included. I had a big knot in my stomach after all of these events and I definitely let out some emotion. I know my team felt that and I know they had a lot of emotion as well that was built up.
“Then we had a bunch of coaches speak their minds — white, Black, Polynesian. It was awesome. Everyone shared their point of view, their thoughts on the current events. Then our players spoke up. This wasn’t a scripted team meeting. It was me opening up the floor. I didn’t know which coach was going to speak, and then they spoke up, and then our team spoke. White players. Black players. Polynesian players. It was awesome.
“This is an ongoing conversation. This is not just going to be one team meeting. This is going to be an ongoing conversation for a long time.”
Of course, that conversation is critical. But it also isn’t enough. Lake said his team already participates in unity meetings “all the time,” where the goal is for players and staff to learn about their teammates’ distinctive backgrounds and cultures.
And he’s putting plans in place to further educate his players.
“This is obviously an election year, and that was another big topic in our team meeting — not just at the federal level but our local level here in the state,” Lake said. “So we’re going to bring in people to really educate our guys on how to vote and how to register, obviously, and then educate these guys on what voting looks like at the local level all the way up to the federal level.
“For our whole team, I think this is going to be the first time they’re going to be able to vote in a presidential election. So that’s going to be very important this year.”
It’s also going to be important to maintain the message — to highlight, in Lake’s words, “the injustice that has happened to George Floyd and countless others.” To have candid and necessarily uncomfortable conversations. To educate themselves.
And, when necessary, to educate others too.
“We’re going to have our local law enforcement come in here and we’re going to have a discussion together with them and our team,” Lake said. “We’re going to get to know them. They’re going to get to know us. We want to have the uncomfortable conversations between us, and I think it’s going to be very educational for them and for us. I think the more teams that are able to do this throughout the country with their local police departments, (that) can have a huge effect on our communities, because a lot of our team is made up of minorities and men of color.
“The more education we can have to stomp out racism, so we can get our law enforcement educated, I think that will set the path for progress.”