Noah Fleischman, Sports Editor
The Robert E. Lee monument and Marcus David Peters Circle have become a gathering point for many during Richmond protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Most recently, coach Mike Rhoades and the men’s basketball team took a photo in full uniform on the now-graffitied statue pedestal.
After the photo and a quote from former President Barack Obama was posted on the team’s social media accounts, it was met with criticism on Twitter and Instagram. Some commenters said “VCU promoting domestic terrorism” and others said they weren’t going to support the team anymore.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
– Barack Obama #BlackLivesMatter #Family#ThisIsRamNation pic.twitter.com/lBIMupXfpl
— VCU Basketball (@VCU_Hoops) July 14, 2020
Rhoades told the Richmond Times-Dispatch the team’s visit to the monument stemmed from listening to his players and their ideas, something he said he wanted to do more of after attending a protest himself.
‘A great first step’
Rhoades stood at the base of the Arthur Ashe memorial on Monument Avenue and spoke for just over three minutes as a speaker at the 804 Coaches For Change protest in early June.
For Rhoades, attending the protest was part of the message he spreads on social media and with his team: leading from the front.
— VCU Basketball (@VCU_Hoops) June 6, 2020
At the protest, Rhoades spoke about racism, social injustice and stressed his message to those in attendance.
“As a white coach, I think it’s very important that I show our players that I’m all in,” Rhoades said in a phone interview. “If I say it, I’ve got to do it, and I’m a big believer in that. I think it’s important that myself and my staff show our players that we will stand with them, stand up for them and do what is right.”
Rhoades was one of many coaches that attended the demonstration, what he called “a great first step.”
The Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania, native said the next step after the protest is to go out and help make a change in the community.
A change within the community
Rhoades spoke with his players individually and held a team Zoom meeting. The players talked about racism in the country and experiences they have had. After those meetings, Rhoades challenged his team to the same thing as the coaches who attended the 804 Coaches for Change protest: to make a change.
“I think it was very productive, but that doesn’t mean anything unless you follow through and you make a legitimate impact on your community. It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another thing to have results.” –– Mike Rhoades, men’s basketball coach
Assistant coach Jamal Brunt said he wants to make an impact on players in the same way that coaches mentored him as a player.
“We’ve always tried to kind of educate our guys on taking advantage of the opportunities that they have,” Brunt said. “Those are things that I’ve always taught to guys I’ve coached, because I had coaches who did that to me.”
The West Baltimore, Maryland, native has experienced social injustices throughout his life and said many other college coaches have as well.
“Have there been instances where I have been a part of an illegal vehicle search, yes,” Brunt said. “Have I been sat on the curb and handcuffed, just because I’m walking down the street with a group of guys that they quote on quote fits the description, yes.”
George Mason coach Dave Paulsen told the Washington Post his team will be focused on advocating for voting, after he learned that only half of his team was registered to vote.
The college basketball season began on Election Day last year and Paulsen said he was going to give his team the day off on Nov. 3 this year.
For Rhoades, he knows the importance of Election Day all too well. His father, James, was a Pennsylvania state senator.
“That’s a day where you can personally have change and impact your community by voting,” Rhoades said. “You can’t do that if you’re not registered, you can’t do that if you don’t show up to vote, you can’t do that if you don’t pull some levers.”
Rhoades said the team will put together a plan for voting this summer.
Dialogue and understanding
Coach Dave Giffard and the men’s soccer team had similar discussions about the Black Lives Matter movement. Giffard said they listened to each other’s experiences and learned from one another.
“I think it’s great that one of the best things about the diversity in our team is that we can all learn so much about each other, and also it kind of teaches you about yourself,” Giffard said.
Men’s soccer boasts a roster of 33 players, representing 10 different countries. Giffard said each player brought a different perspective to the conversation.
“You have to continue to have real dialogue and real conversations to try to understand more and educate each other. I think the more we all understand each other and appreciate each other, the better off the world will be.” –– Dave Giffard, men’s soccer coach
As coaches, Giffard and Rhoades play a role in their players’ lives each day, even after graduation. Rhoades said working to fight racism should be something he helps his players with too.
“As coaches we impact them [athletes] in so many different areas and this should be one of them as well,” Rhoades said.
For Brunt, when practices resume that doesn’t mean the work toward ending social injustice is over.
“Just because we’re back at practice, social injustice didn’t end,” Brunt said. “Let’s continue to educate ourselves and figure out ways that we can be a part of that change.”
Contributing writer Jordan Adams contributed to this report.