Four days after George Floyd’s death at the hands of a white police officer in Minnesota, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith tweeted about his mother’s experience with racism while growing up in the Jim Crow-era South.
His outspokenness continued the following week.
Smith attended demonstrations on campus, including a protest organized by OSU football players and other athletes outside Ohio Stadium.
In a 333-word letter published Sunday, he spoke further about issues surrounding racial justice and expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Smith recognized the impact of his involvement and willingness to speak out. He raised the point in conversations with football coach Ryan Day and men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann at the onset of the nationwide protests that arose in the aftermath of the killing of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, reigniting concerns over systemic racism in the United States and the treatment of minorities by law enforcement.
"We felt that it was important for us to take a stand," Smith said in an interview with The Dispatch, "not just because of our own personal beliefs, but because we’re enablers, we’re influencers. We wanted to make sure that our athletes are comfortable. Otherwise, that stuff is bottled up."
It’s one reason to consider for a new wave of activism that emerged among athletes at Ohio State in recent weeks.
Backed by the head of the athletic department and other coaches, players have been increasingly vocal in response to Floyd’s death, even at the risk of ruffling the feathers of some fans during a politically polarized period in the country.
Basketball player Seth Towns was detained by police during a protest in Downtown Columbus. Football player C.J. Saunders was arrested for a violation of the city’s curfew after he had been at another demonstration near campus. Athletes organized a "Kneel for Nine" protest in remembrance of Floyd.
Similar scenes have emerged across a myriad of other college programs with athletes, coaches and administrators joining marches and protests.
"We’re seeing a real breaking point," said Nicole Kraft, a journalism professor at Ohio State and director of the school’s Sports and Society Initiative. "They will not have their voices minimized, even though there are penalties for those who speak up.
"Their behavior says to me that they’re recognizing there is no tomorrow, that it’s time to speak up and be heard and be counted. The more people that will do that, the greater the impact and hopefully the less negative ramifications people in their path will ultimately face."
In response to Floyd’s death, Smith said he encouraged the school’s athletes to be thoughtful in their comments and "make sure that their message is meaningful."
He thought they had.
"They have the right like everybody else to say what’s on their heart, to say what’s on their mind," Smith said. "Just make sure it’s clear, and that’s what they do."
Most players ultimately shared messages through social-media platforms.
Two days after Floyd's death, linebacker Teradja Mitchell tweeted about his fear of the sight of a police officer.
In the aftermath, defensive end Tyreke Smith also wrote on Twitter, "This isn’t White vs Black, This is EVERYONE vs Racism. I took an oath to demand change and am dedicated to using my platform to bring about change."
It’s a relatively recent development that athletic departments have been as supportive of athlete’s outspokenness, particularly online.
Kevin DeShazo, the founder of Fieldhouse Media, a firm that trains athletes and colleges on social media use, said it was typical for teams to ban players from using Twitter during the platform’s infancy a decade ago.
Only a couple of programs still have such policies in effect.
"That was the norm," DeShazo said. "Ban your players, create fear around social media. It was so unknown that everyone was afraid of it. Now we’ve flipped."
Earlier this week, Iowa loosened a policy prohibiting football players’ Twitter use after it drew criticism. Part of the sea change in approach is owed to the impending rules changes concerning name, image and likeness.
Because players can potentially profit off their exposure through third-party endorsement deals, schools have taken steps toward promoting their players on social media or encouraging them to develop a personal brand.
The growing acceptance of social media has allowed for more instances for activism.
Smith said Ohio State has no formal social media policy for athletes, and he had grown comfortable with their outspokenness online.
"I just realized, ‘Hey, this is who they are,’ " Smith said. "They don’t know what a rotary dial phone is. You know, they don’t know what using a quarter is at the gas station to make a phone call. This is their world, so let’s embrace it, and let’s talk about how we help them.
"I don’t know when it was, but years ago, my attitude toward social media changed. I understand that this is their world, this is what they grew up with."
Dispatch reporter Bill Rabinowitz contributed to this story.