Purdue football player Lorenzo Neal had just returned home from the gym one day in late May, after being away from the internet for most of the day.
He opened Twitter. Almost immediately, he saw the video of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, being killed by a white Minneapolis police officer.
“You just start reading stuff, and of course you watch the video and what occurred, and you know — I think most times when you see stuff like that, you’re in shock,” Neal said. “That was my feeling. I was in shock of what I was watching. As the day went on, it just turned into sadness.”
Three weeks later, football player Simeon Smiley organized a players’ march from their practice facilities on campus to the Tippecanoe County Courthouse. Purdue Athletics released a video documenting the event.
“George Floyd, for me, and I feel like for everyone else, should be the ending point of this,” Semisi Fakasiieiki, a fifth-year defensive end, said in the video. “I don’t know how someone could sit there and watch that happen.
“It was pretty hard on me. I’m not gonna lie.”
The deaths of Floyd and other Black Americans in 2020 sparked a national outcry for racial justice. This protest made its way to Purdue and the Big Ten conference later this summer.
‘We gotta get in’
Before the fall football season began, the Big Ten launched its “United As One” social-justice campaign, created by Big Ten Associate Director of Branding Chris Althoff. The Big Ten issued a statement on Oct. 23 that described in detail what each of the 14 Big Ten teams would be doing to promote anti-racism and inclusion.
Thirteen of the 14 teams were said to be sporting social-justice symbols and messages during their Week 1 games, either through field markings, T-shirts, helmet decals, jersey patches or nameplates.
Purdue was the one exception.
When Purdue played Iowa in Week 1, the Hawkeyes wore messages like “Black Lives Matter” and “End Racism” on the backs of their helmets.
Purdue’s in-game and sideline attire was devoid of any such symbolism.
“I was in shock,” said Leroy Keyes, a Black Purdue alumnus and former star running back for the Boilers. “I kept looking at the jerseys and I thought, I don’t see anything on our jerseys saying we support anything. Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, whatever you wanna support, let’s get in the game. We can’t win standing on the sideline, we gotta get in.”
Keyes played at Purdue from 1966-1968 and is the only two-time consensus All-American in Purdue football history. He returned to the University as a running backs coach for the 1995-1996 season, and again in 2000 as the assistant director of the John Purdue Club until he retired in 2011.
“I would have loved to see Purdue do something like that, because it matters,” Keyes said about jersey signage. “If it matters to your players, it should matter to you as a head coach.”
On Oct. 30, one day before the Illinois game, Purdue Athletics tweeted a video of Purdue-themed T-shirts that read, “No Fear, All Love.” An accompanying press release said players and coaches would sport the T-shirts during warmups and on the sidelines the next day, one week after the rest of the Big Ten had made their statements.
“In acknowledgement and support of all members of the community, the Purdue football team will wear T-shirts with the phrasing ‘No fear. All love.” throughout the 2020 season,” the press release reads.
“The unified statement by student-athletes is intended to support equality, inclusion and the need for continued progress toward a safe and just environment for all,” the release adds.
In the announcement, the “social equality shirt” is credited in part to fifth-year offensive lineman Grant Hermanns, who is white. The idea was said to have been created by “football leadership” and Purdue’s student-athlete advisory committee.
“We came (to the meetings) with the idea that, ‘no fear all love’ is the perfect way to say what we need this year as a society, and as a team, too,” Hermanns said in the release.
A sports broadcaster from The Big Ten Network said during the Iowa game that the Purdue team had meant to wear the shirts then, but the shipment arrived late. That contradicted the Big Ten’s statement, which made no mention of the T-shirts for Week 1.
Exponent reporters did not observe players wearing the shirts in Week 2 against Illinois nor in Week 4 against Northwestern. Purdue’s Week 3 game was canceled.
As of Sunday afternoon, no photo documentation, neither from The Exponent nor Purdue Athletics, exists of players or coaches wearing the shirts on the sidelines during games.
“We’re sitting back and sayin’ we don’t wanna be change-makers at Purdue?” Keyes asked. “That’s the message you’re sending to your alumni — Black and white — that we are Purdue, but we can’t change with the times.
“To me it’s a no-brainer ... I don’t think Mike Bobinksi is the type of athletic director that didn’t see this coming.”
When asked about the lack of social-justice messages on jerseys and helmets and whether they’d be worn in the future, Associate Athletics Director for Strategic Communications Kassidie Blackstock said, “We have no further information at this time.”
Keyes also commented on the lack of representation in Purdue Athletics, particularly among the coaching staff.
“Why is it so hard to get a Black head coach at Purdue in the four major sports?” Keyes asked, referring to football, men’s and women’s basketball, and track and field.
Forty-eight percent of student-athletes in those four sports are Black, according to Exponent analysis. About 3% of Purdue’s total undergraduate population is Black, according to University statistics.
The population of Black student-athletes in the entire athletics department is roughly 23%.
“If there’s a qualified Black candidate out there,” Keyes continued, “don’t keep saying, ‘We can’t find someone,’ when I know there are coaches out there. I love all the coaches that we have, but we can’t keep saying we can’t find (any). ‘Cause if we don’t look, we’ll definitely not find.”
There is only one Black head coach in Purdue Athletics. Norbert Elliott is in his third year coaching Boilermaker Track and Field.
Keyes noted a similar lack of diversity among University administration.
“Whether it’s the John Purdue Club, or you look down the hallway in Mackey, and you say ‘Is this the same representation?’ You got 500 student-athletes, and you got five administrators who are Black in your athletic department?” he said. “We gotta make a more concerted effort.”
The national anthem
Before every game, the Boilermakers and their opponents remain in the locker rooms while the anthem plays.
“My entire career at Purdue, I’ve never been out of the locker room for a national anthem, home or away,” Neal, a fifth-year senior, said.
Before Week 1, Iowa wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. said he would be kneeling for the national anthem. A form of protest that has become familiar in professional sports, kneeling now has the opportunity to make its way into college athletics.
But Tracy was unable to partake in that protest because of Purdue’s policy.
Blackstock said the decision is nothing more than a product of pregame management, and something that Purdue has done since Brohm arrived in 2016. Coincidentally, 2016 was the year Kaepernick first took a knee.
“I’m not surprised that we always take the comfortable way out of situations,” Keyes said. “We wanna be leaders of the free world, but we don’t step up and say we’re not afraid to take the lead. So we sit back.”
Neal said he has never considered whether or not he would kneel for the anthem, because the situation has never arisen.
Keyes was certain how he would react. The main challenges facing him and his peers when he played, he noted, were the Vietnam War and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
“If I was at Purdue University,” he said, “and we were having as much unrest in the streets, and we had 60,000 students or fans in the stands, I believe that they’d have probably booed me for the first time in my career, because I would have taken a knee myself.”
What has Purdue Athletics done?
While the football team has not donned symbols and messages on its uniforms like other Big Ten teams, associate athletics director for student-athlete development Peyton Stovall said the department has done other things behind the scenes to promote racial equality and social activism.
“We really wanted to focus in and listen to our student-athletes,” Stovall said. “How can we amplify their voices, and do it strategically, in a methodical way that’s going to increase their voice and increase their allies as well?”
An answer to that question came during an in-person student-athlete forum held on June 2, in which Black students were able to be candid and vulnerable, Stovall said. Whatever issues or grievances they had, they spoke to the room, he said.
“(Head football coach Jeff Brohm) didn’t say a word,” football player Branson Deen said. “He took the time to listen to us, and just soak it all in and learn about what we go through as a race.”
From there, Purdue’s student-athlete advisory committee created a department-wide pledge against racism, “to confront and call out racism, bigotry and hate in my community whenever I see or hear it.” The committee tweeted the full pledge on June 17.
we hear you. we see you. we stand with you. boilermakers, together, let’s take a stand and make a change✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿 pic.twitter.com/tEOFykZCBz— Purdue SAAC (@BoilerSAAC) June 17, 2020
Stovall said the committee has been working with coaches and administration to address racial issues within the department.
Léony Boudreau, a women’s basketball player who is white and the director of diversity and inclusion for the committee, was unavailable for comment after several attempts. Stovall did not release names of other student-athletes on the committee.
Two Purdue athletes, wrestler Jared Florell and women’s basketball player Nyagoa Gony, are also a part of the Big Ten Anti-Racism Anti-Hate Coalition. Gony was not made available for comment by Sunday afternoon, after multiple requests with the women’s basketball sports information director.
Aside from committees, Stovall said the department has hosted meetings with local police chiefs and elected officials to gain a better understanding of how the government functions, and how systemic issues might be addressed.
Purdue Athletics also published a series of videos in June featuring student-athletes such as men’s basketball player Isaiah Thompson and softball player Skye Webb, in which the two discuss what it’s like to be Black in college athletics.
“I definitely see a difference in treatment by people between me and my teammates,” Webb said in the video. “I’m the only African American on my team, so you can definitely tell a difference when we go out places. When we play, fans talk to my teammates different than they talk to me.”
Webb, now a senior, has since left the softball team, and did not respond to a request for comment.
On Oct. 15, Stovall said Purdue Athletics staff attended a mandatory diversity and inclusion training. A similar event for student-athletes was held on Oct. 19.
The trainings were led by DaVida Anderson, a Purdue alumna who was a member of the Track and Field team. Anderson is now a motivational speaker who specializes in diversity and inclusion.
“For us, it’s not telling people how bad they are,” Stovall said. “Ours is, how can we work together to be progressive, so that way all people feel included, feel valued?
“Whatever race you are, whatever gender you are, whatever religion, whatever it may be, we want you to feel safe, we want you to feel involved, we want you to feel included. You are with us.”
The Exponent requested a copy of the presentation used in the training, and Blackstock responded with a copy of the flyer used to advertise the event.
In its attempt to amplify students’ voices, Stovall said athletics spent much of this semester encouraging student-athletes to use their voices by participating in elections.
“I think the athletics department has done a great job of registering people to vote, and I think that there is a concerted effort among the athletic department to try to get a better understanding to student-athletes about current events in the world,” Neal said. “I will give them credit for that.”
Choosing to speak up
When Lorenzo Neal first appeared in a press conference earlier this year, he spent much of his time speaking not about football, but about social justice in America. When he was interviewed again on Oct. 28, he did the same.
“I had made this decision months back,” Neal said. “I decided earlier this year I was going to talk about what I wanted to talk about in my interviews, so people really knew me more personally.”
While reporters didn’t respond to Neal’s statements the first time around, they seemed more willing to ask Neal follow-up questions during the second press conference. A dialogue began about activism and voting among Purdue athletes.
Multiple times when Neal was asked about football, he responded instead with messages of anti-racism, raising awareness and promoting activism.
“While it might just be an interview, this is something that I live every day,” he said. “I have to be Black in America every day. We see things happen to my friends, to people’s family members on the team every day.
“So to me, what is me not answering the question that you want in an interview, to talk about real life? To me, that’s not even a question; that’s not an issue.”
Neal set a precedent when he spoke up during the press conference. In recent history, no other Purdue athlete had made unprompted statements addressing racial inequities to the media.
“I would say it’s mostly hesitation from athletes, period,” he said. “College athletics — it’s a business at the end of the day. I think a lot of people feel in their circumstances, they’re afraid to make people uncomfortable or ruffle any feathers, and I don’t fault the authorities or the players or coaches for that.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily a concerted effort to silence players, or not allow them to speak. I just think it’s a level of discomfort that we have as young adults, understanding that we don’t necessarily — even if we have the ability — feel free enough to just express our opinions like most people in the world have.”