One of the best parts of sports fandom is the playing of counterfactuals, a never-ending game of “What if?” What if that kick had been good? What if that penalty wasn’t called? What if that player had been drafted by a different team? It’s endless discussion for sports pundits and casual fans.
A great “what if” involves a 2006 decision that affected both college and professional football.
At that time, Nick Saban was in his second year as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. Already a championship coach at LSU, Saban was expected to do great things in the NFL. After a lackluster first season, Miami was hopeful that a new quarterback would help the franchise move forward. Drew Brees was a free agent coming off a shoulder injury, and Nick Saban’s preferred choice to lead his offense. Brees’s physical evaluation did not satisfy the Miami front office, who passed on Brees and traded a second-round pick to sign Dante Culpepper instead. Culpepper went on to spend most of the 2006 season with an injury. Brees, though, ended up in New Orleans, where he helped revive a city and a moribund franchise, including a win in Super Bowl XLIV. The 2006 Dolphins had an outside chance at a playoff spot, but faltered down the stretch and Saban bolted back to the college ranks. Since then he’s led the University of Alabama Crimson Tide (my alma mater) to five national championships, cementing his place as one of the top college football coaches in history. As an Alabama fan and a New Orleans-born Saints fan, I feel like it’s worked out pretty well.
Nick Saban’s official response to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor was thoughtful and relatively safe. Only the most irritable members of Alabama’s fanbase—no small number, to be fair—could take issue with it. It was a helpful first step in signaling to players, fans, and the public at large that the most influential college football coach in America, and his program, took the issue seriously. While Saban has yet to appear publicly at any marches or rallies, Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne and men’s basketball coach Nate Oats were present at a rally in Tuscaloosa over the weekend of June 6.
Saban’s statement was not enough to assuage some critics, though. ESPN’s Dominique Foxworth and Paul Finebaum debated the matter on the air two weeks ago, with Foxworth saying that Saban’s words were insufficient and Finebaum noting Saban’s long track record of work on civil rights issues:
It seems likely that both Finebaum and Foxworth are right. Finebaum has covered Saban for over two decades, and quite closely since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2007. If there were concerns about bias or bigotry within any of Saban’s programs, it would surely be known by now. Like his mentor and friend Bill Belichick, Saban has a sprawling coaching “family tree” that includes African-American head coaches like Mel Tucker (Michigan State) and Mike Locksley (Maryland). Moreover he has a reputation for attempting to rehabilitate troubled players far beyond what might be expected of even a top-tier head coach, as he made plain in a fiery press conference several years ago. Still, it is hard to understate the potential symbolic significance of Saban’s presence at a rally, or perhaps an in-person statement to the media.
(It’s also worth remembering that Saban is not indifferent to the meaning of public protests. He was a football player and student at Kent State in 1970. He has spoken about the Kent State shootings at length, including in an emotional 2016 press conference. While a cautious man in many respects, it seems unlikely that he would oppose public displays of protest.)
The criticism of Saban highlights a complication with this protest moment. While I don’t think it’s fair to blame either the peaceful protests or the more destructive riots on the COVID-19 lockdowns, the truth is that at some point, we all have to go back to work, and that is where a great deal of progress in equality is likely to be made (or not made, as the case may be). For Nick Saban, going to work involves leading a massive organization of players, coaches, trainers, academic support staff, and other individuals within the football program. It is no small thing that Alabama’s football program has given hundreds of young men a college education and sent dozens into the NFL where they have earned the sort of money that has changed their lives and that of their families and even communities. The secondary effects of the Crimson Tide’s success has been a boon to the local economy, as well, especially in the wake of a devastating tornado in 2011. Saban’s charity work has distributed over $8 million in funding over the last several years, including the building of 17 Habitat for Humanity homes in Tuscaloosa. Though I’m partial to Nick Saban, the same could be said for many other coaches in college football.
Yes, college football coaches are handsomely rewarded, and there are valuable ongoing discussions about player compensation and long-term injury mitigation and prevention. But we should not dismiss as insufficient the ways that athletics and business can contribute to progress toward equality—lest we wind up with something like the sort of inchoate gnosticism that Eric Voegelin warned about half a century ago: dismissing all material progress in exchange for a constantly moving, ill-defined measure of equality that eventually leads well-meaning people to exasperation and resentment.
There is one thing that influential college coaches could do. Though the public often engages in ritual hand-wringing over the high salaries of these coaches, the truth is that the universities pay only a small portion of their salaries. The bulk of coaches’ compensation comes from athletic boosters, and this is where coaches could make a difference. Imagine if Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Ed Orgeron, Jim Harbaugh, and every other top-shelf college coach turned to the boosters who fund their salaries, their charities, and their recruiting budgets and encouraged them to look in the mirror. No more good-ol’-boy hiring practices. No more “aw shucks” racism from employees in the break room or on social media. No more employee standards that needlessly privilege people of one background at the expense of all others. And no more treating players one way when they’re wearing your team’s jersey and then another way when they’re not. If a booster or sponsor is unwilling to take these basic steps, perhaps coaches and athletic directors can make it clear that their money’s no longer good around the athletic complex. Coaches in the upper echelon have little financial incentive to put these demands on their boosters, but the opportunity to coach at a high level brings with it obligations in times of deep social division. It is not perfect, but this sort of approach may be the best hope for change at an interpersonal level while still fulfilling one’s professional and institutional commitments.
The case of Drew Brees is more complicated. Brees has been an exemplary NFL quarterback—widely regarded as a fine teammate and leader, a skilled craftsman at his position, and a model citizen in tightly knit New Orleans. Yet Brees’s place in an increasingly politicized NFL began to shift in 2016 when he expressed opposition to Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem. The framing of the issue never managed to separate the protest from the cause it was designed to promote, and Brees, like a lot of Americans, expressed discomfort with what he regarded as disrespect toward the American flag.
When the issue came up again in the wake of the George Floyd protests, Brees—in a June 3 interview—reiterated his position: kneeling is disrespectful and he would “never” condone it. At this point, many fans and commentators around the NFL and the broader sports world lost patience, concluding that Brees, like many others, allowed his opposition to the form of a protest to prevent him from standing up for the substance of the cause. That’s not an unreasonable complaint, and certainly not limited to Brees; far too many Republican politicians and conservative pundits have spilled more ink over the riots that emerged from the protests than over the events that precipitated the protests. This view animated many in the sports world, as evidenced by this impassioned argument from ESPN’s Maria Taylor:
It remains to be seen what long-term effects this incident will have on Brees’s legacy. But beyond the apologies, it reveals the desperate need for all of us to listen to one another while compromising where we can.
What if one of Brees’s teammates looked him in the eye and tried to forge agreement on the substance of the protest instead of demanding he acquiesce to the form of the protest itself?
What if pundits and athletes alike reminded their critics that kneeling during the anthem took place one day a week, but police brutality was a week-long problem?
What if Brees realized that his discomfort with kneeling was best handled with discussion instead of overreacting to such an extent that it harms his ability to lead his own team?
What if Brees looked past the protest and lifted up the substance of such a powerful complaint?
What if, what if, what if.
We’re demanding a lot of everyone right now. Apathy will not effect change, and racist law enforcement is both unjust and a danger to our democracy. No one—no activist or reformer, no politician or president, no athlete or coach—can do everything. We are best served by encouraging others to make strides towards justice whenever and wherever they can.