Clemson football players explain why they are leading campus protest, come to the defense of Dabo Swinney

After news of their planned protest trickled out on Wednesday, Clemson football players Trevor Lawrence, Cornell Powell, Mike Jones and Darien Rencher spoke to reporters Thursday about what sparked them to organize the event and the recent difficult, but necessary discussions on race that have been happening inside the Tigers program. 

The event, the “Clemson Community Peaceful Demonstration,” will take place Saturday evening and will include speakers, an eight-minute moment of silence and a two-mile march through part of downtown Clemson. 

“We look forward to coming together as a unified community to help encourage change and put an end to systemic racism,” the event’s flier reads. 

Rencher, a senior running back, explained that the football team’s presence in the Clemson community is a prominent one, so players wanted to use their platform to help “gather people together for something that’s right,” to support the Black Lives Matter movement and to do so in “a way that unifies our entire community together.”

Rencher said there are a lot of folks who worked behind the scenes to put the event together, including campus officials, city officials and local police. 

“Hopefully it can be a pivot moment as we join in on the fight that’s going on around the world which is that black lives do matter, and we’re fighting for equality,” Rencher said. 

Added Lawrence: “We really want to bring people together. We don’t want it to be something that’s looked at to divide people further. We want to bring everyone together. We’ve had full support, which has been really cool.”

Lawrence acknowledged that some will not share the viewpoints that will be expressed at Saturday’s event, but he hopes those folks will still come out and be willing to listen to another perspective. 

“This gives people a really good opportunity to change their mind. There has to be a little bit of room for people to change their mind because that's the only way change will happen. There are things wrong with that way of thinking for sure, but if a person wants to make a change and is trying to learn, that’s why we create spaces like this peaceful demonstration and the conversations we’ve been having,” Lawrence said. 

“There’s a lot of people that just don’t know what they don’t know. They’re learning a lot just from having conversations with people they care about. It opens their eyes to things they didn't know and they didn't think about and it’s affecting them in different ways. That's really what we want to create.”

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and Trevor Lawrence answer questions at a news conference for the NCAA college football playoff championship game Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Players feeling emotionally drained, but hopeful

Rencher said the days of social unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer have been “draining,” but have caused the Clemson team to come together in an effort to affect change in their community. 

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve been this emotionally drained. At the same time, though, I feel like our generation is really trying to push the ball forward. Like every generation up to this point, we’re just joining in on the fight,” Rencher said. “I think that’s what we’ve done on our team, on our staff and that’s what we want to continue to do in our community and join the fight of so many people who are trying to fight for equality in South Carolina and the world at large.

“We’ve seen people come together and have seen people share their pain, their anger. There needs to be a place for that because I think there is a reason to be angry, a reason to rage, because there’s been so much injustice done for so long. It’s also been cool to see my non-black friends come to the table and listen and actually for the first time believe. I think that’s the biggest thing now. People are actually not just listening, but actually believing the stories that show a different side of America for black people. I think that’s powerful. That’s what we hope to continue. I feel like a lot of these conversations happen in the shadows. I think we want to continue with this as we try to bring our community together to unite and to share the stories and the hurt of so many people.”

Jones said even after all of the pain that has bubbled up to the surface in recent weeks, he now feels more hopeful than he ever has in his entire life. 

“I’ve had tough conversations that I could have never seen myself having two months ago,” Jones said. “I’ve had people reach out that I haven’t talked to since middle school and high school. That shows me that the whole world cares right now. It’s bigger than me being a football player. These people care about who I am. They care about my family. They care about our race. They want to see changes.”

Players come to the defense of Dabo Swinney

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has been the subject of criticism for his responses to social issues, both in the past and in recent weeks. Swinney addressed a number of issues in a lengthy video released earlier this week. In that video, Swinney defended himself and expressed that he “wholeheartedly” supports Black Lives Matter. 

On Thursday, his players emphatically backed Swinney — especially after he held a meeting with Clemson’s seniors at his home. That senior-only meeting later spilled over into a bigger meeting with the entire team. 

“The meeting was just about him being able to listen to us and hear our pain and our frustration with what’s been going on around the world. The black players on the team are really hurting from everything that’s been going on. He did a really great job of just listening and understanding and hearing us out,” Powell said. 

Rencher said the meeting with his fellow seniors was “probably the most impactful” meeting he has had during his time at Clemson. 

“I felt like it was so authentic and real. I think everybody is hurting in some way. We’re all trying to figure out what we should do,” Rencher said. “I think a lot of people are confused, people don’t know what to say. A lot of us want to vent and for the first time i feel like people actually want to listen to us. Coach Swinney and [his wife] Kathleen just wanted to listen and hear our hearts.”

Lawrence said it’s easy to judge someone from the outside looking in, but those around Swinney on a day-to-day basis know his true intentions and feelings. 

“With Coach Swinney, for people who don’t know him, it’s easy to judge some things he does. But I think the biggest testament to who he is is the people who are around him every day,” Lawrence said. “He's proven every day being around him that he’s genuine and we trust him. He’s been behind us this whole time. We fully support him and he fully supports us.”

Clemson running back Darien Rencher played a key role in organizing Saturday's event. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Rencher and Jones were both heartened to see Swinney put the effort in to better understand the perspective of his black players. Not only that, Swinney has empowered his players to lead the charge toward real change. 

“It’s good to know he is trying to understand certain things that are different for me and him. Knowing that he wants to understand. He identifies that there needs to be change. Now he’s like, ‘how do we do the change?’ That’s what speaks to me. A lot of people hear stuff, but to go do it is actually helping,” Jones said. 

Added Rencher: “I think we’re all in a position where we can be educated and learn how to better handle the situation. This is new territory for some people and we’re trying to figure out the best way to go about it. I think the best thing he’s done is consult the seniors, our staff, and we’re trying to come together as a team and be unified. We don’t want anything to divide us. He’s empowered us for us to even have this event. That was him empowering us, giving his players more of a voice so we can use it to make some change.”

Why Trevor Lawrence is speaking up

Lawrence is one of the biggest stars in college football and will likely be one of the top picks in next year’s NFL drafts. He was quick to speak up on the issue of racial injustice on social media, doing so just a few days after Floyd was killed. 

On Thursday, Lawrence said he recognizes the platform he holds as the quarterback of one of the best teams in college football. 

“I do have a part to play. Even though these issues don’t directly affect me, it does affect me because this affects the world I’m living in,” Lawrence said. “I want my kids to one day live in a world where everyone is equal. And they can have best friends that are black, white, whatever color. That’s been my thoughts on it. 

Lawrence  also had a message for people who think he should stay quiet. 

“I think the platform I have, it’s important to stand up for something,” he said. “It’s easy to stay quiet because some people don’t want to make people mad. But those aren’t the kind of fans or followers you want if it makes them mad when you stand up for equality.”

Why it’s important for white players to speak out

Of the four Clemson players who spoke with reporters on Thursday, Lawrence is the only one who is white. The other three emphasized how important and meaningful it is to feel supported by their white teammates and coaches. 

“It was big for me seeing them wanting to be educated and wanting to understand my pain and my teammates' pain,” Powell said. “To see them use their platform to speak out was really big. That showed that it’s more than football and it’s more than just a sport to them. They really care about me and how my life is affected by all of this.”

Jones said the genuine reactions from people who aren’t black make him believe that societal progress is achievable. 

“It means the world to me,” Jones said. “It’s never been like this in my whole life. It’s never been like this in my parents’ life. I appreciate my guys. I appreciate the community, people reaching out on Twitter. That fills my heart. I’m appreciative of people caring. It shows me we’re more than just football players.”

Rencher said after speaking with his parents and grandparents, he feels the issue has progressed from “a black and white thing” to a “humanity vs. inequality thing.”

“I think you’re seeing a lot of people come together to fight for the rights of black people in America. It’s been awesome to see,” Rencher said. “Before, a lot of people didn't even listen or believe the stories, but I think they’re now listening and believing. In doing that, it’s allowing people to show compassion in their hearts.”

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