Hunter Reynolds grew up in the affluent neighborhood of South Orange, N.J., but that didn’t stop his mother from having the talk with him his freshman year of high school.
It’s a conversation many Black mothers have with their sons as they grow older, used to protect them in case they are ever pulled over by the police.
Reynolds, a star football player who eventually landed at the University of Michigan, was no different.
“She said, ‘Make sure you tell them you go to Don Bosco Prep,’ so that way they know, like, you’re not some kid who has nothing going for him,” Reynolds told reporters Thursday on a video conference call. “They know that you come from a household that can send you to a historic high school.”
The idea behind it — and many others like it — is to prevent incidents like the one witnessed on camera on Memorial Day in Minneapolis, Minn., when 46-year-old George Floyd died needlessly while in police custody. Floyd, an unarmed Black man, lay on the ground face-first, hands cuffed behind his back, as white police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd died moments later, with an autopsy ruling his death homicide by asphyxiation.
Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter, while the three other officers present — all there to investigate a claim of a counterfeit $20 bill — have also been charged in the death.
The incident — certainly not the first of its kind in the United States — sparked nation-wide protests for police reform. Marches happened across the country, some of them turning violent, including in Ann Arbor, where Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh joined a peaceful demonstration downtown.
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“What happened with George Floyd is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Reynolds said. “These are issues that have been going on for the last 400-some years. This isn’t really just something that became popular or just became something that affected my life, or other Black people’s lives. These are things that have been affecting our lives — our parents’ lives, our grandparents’ lives, our great grandparents’ lives — for centuries.”
The Big Ten and its first-year commissioner, Kevin Warren, a Black man, responded by forming an anti-hate and anti-racism coalition to start the conversation at the local level. Michigan chose 14 representatives from its group — from head coaches (Jim Harbaugh is one) to administrators to student-athletes, with Reynolds, a junior defensive back, and former walk-on Adam Shibley representing the football team and two of the three student-athletes in the group.
The goal, Reynolds and Shibley say, is to keep the dialogue going. To make sure the topic doesn’t get lost or forgotten about in a 24-hour news cycle, one that craves the next, shiny object and often drops topics that no longer generates eyeballs.
“Maria Taylor from ESPN said it best,” Shibley said. “She said, ‘It’s not longer about having uncomfortable conversations. We now have to hold people accountable. It’s no longer good enough to just not be racist. We have to be anti-racist.’
“I think getting people on our campus more aware and not only getting them to talk, but to change their actions is one of the biggest things I’m hoping for.”
A video conference call with the team on June 1 was the first step, Reynolds said. What began as an informational meeting with coaches, with instruction on how players should return to campus safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic, quickly turned into a conversation about race relations in America.
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Harbaugh spoke first, about his feelings on the circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death, following up comments he made publicly in the days before.
“He opened the floor up to everybody else to share whatever thoughts and opinions they had on the subject,” Reynolds said.
Since then, student-athletes at Michigan have led several video conference calls on the topic, with athletic director Warde Manuel, a Black man, coaches and counselors present. Briana Nelson, on the women’s track and field team and the third Michigan student-athlete on the coalition, is starting a student organization called “Wolverines Against Racism.”
Shibley is a unique voice in the conversation. He’s white and also attended a private, Catholic high school while growing up in Cleveland. During that time, he began dating a Black woman — a relationship that lasted more than six years.
And while Shibley can’t claim to have lived in the shoes of a Black man in America, he says he got a taste.
“I experienced a lot of hate from it,” Shibley said. “I went through a lot of struggles with her. I had to drop friends because of the way they treated me for it. It wasn’t easy — and that really drove me to learn more about the issue.”
These days, Shibley says he’s doing more reading and watching of documentaries to help gain context. And internally, on the football team, the conversation among white players has followed a similar path. Many of them want to show support and be an ally of their Black teammates’.
While the football season this fall is still uncertain, there is a plan, both players say, to continue speaking out. To not stop the conversation about ending racism and the mistreatment of Black Americans.
So another mother like Reynolds’ no longer has to say, “Make sure you tell (the cops) you go to the University of Michigan so they don’t think you’re just some kid who’s on the streets all day.”
Reynolds continued: “Even if I was, that doesn’t mean I should be killed for having a broke tail light. That’s just the reality — that when you encounter a police officer, as a Black man, you kind of have to paint yourself in the best light possible. Because if you don’t, it might be the last time you’re ever alive.”
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