The action has become a cause.
The cause has become a vehicle for change, real change, honest-to-goodness, culture-shaking, life-altering change.
Such is a snapshot of the 804 Coaches for Change movement, an initiative that began in early June in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death while in the custody of the Minneapolis police and has come to involve hundreds of high school and college coaches, mostly of basketball, throughout Virginia.
On June 6, just days after Darryl Watts (Armstrong basketball), Ty White (John Marshall basketball), and Stephen Lewis (St. Christopher’s basketball and athletic administrator) issued the call, upwards of 400 coaches and advocates for young people and Black Lives Matter assembled at the Arthur Ashe Monument for a peaceful protest.
After hearing several speakers, they marched with enthusiasm but without incident to the Robert E. Lee Monument in a show of solidarity and resolve.
So began the momentum. Three months later, the momentum continues, unabated.
The organizers’ first order of business was creating an executive board to plan activities that would, among many goals, create dialogue, promote understanding of one community for another, and foster racial harmony.
Watts was elected chairman. White, Lewis, Del Harris (Collegiate), Kara Bacile (Steward girls basketball), Hamill Jones (St. Christopher’s, Chris Johnson (Virginia Havoc AAU president), and Chuck Moore (TPLS Christian Academy basketball) serve on the board.
“We really dove into the planning,” said Harris, who’s beginning his fifth season heading Collegiate’s boys program. “It’s about action. It can’t be just words. It has to be about ideas and actions.”
In the ensuing weeks, coaches from Virginia colleges and local high schools recorded and posted on Twitter videos in which they wholeheartedly endorsed the wearing of masks. The message from all was teamwork and respect for others in order to stop the spread of COVID-19, keep family, friends, and anyone else they encounter safe and healthy, and enable everyone to return, hopefully sooner rather than later, to whatever normalcy will look like.
Summer discussions amongst board members evolved into the creation of the CARE League which has less to do with basketball and everything to do with life beyond the court.
CARE is an acronym for Conversations about Race and Equality.
On August 17, teams and coaches from Armstrong, Monacan, and St. Christopher’s participated in a Zoom call. The next day, counterparts from Collegiate, Henrico, and John Marshall followed suit. Conversations among other schools are in the works.
“It was really awesome,” said Harris. “We purposely got schools from different communities together. The whole thing about (discussing) race is getting out of your bubble and showing sensitivity, compassion, and empathy.
“Our young people coming together and having uncomfortable conversations about race is a step in the right direction. There were real-life stories of real-live emotions and real-life feelings. I keep saying: It’s not what you say. It’s how you make me feel. If you can get these young people talking, you really have something special. It was a safe space for them to talk. It was very impactful. We learned a lot.”
The Collegiate crew was a rapt audience and eager and inquisitive participants.
“They wanted to be educated,” Harris said. “They listened. They want to know what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. They really feel they can change things in their generation. The Black community is hurting. They (Collegiate’s players) wanted to let the Black students at the other schools know that we want to do better, want to be better. Just because (racial prejudice) may be someone else’s view, it’s not our view.”
The Zoom call, which Harris moderated, began with questions about basketball such as How do you feel about what’s going on in the NBA? and What message would you wear on your jersey if you were in the NBA?
Answers varied, but the theme was the same: respect, justice, togetherness, and harmony. Comments about messages on uniforms set the tone for discussion about equality and equity.
“We live in our own bubble,” Harris said. “One of the questions was about role reversal. What would a student at John Marshall want a white student at a private school in Henrico County to know about his journey? It (the discussion) put things in perspective. These young people pick things up quickly. I was so impressed with that.”
It’s axiomatic, of course, that the lessons of sport extend far beyond the venue or the moment.
“They’re the same lessons we teach on the court and on the field,” Harris said. “You have to be uncomfortable. Once you get uncomfortable, you can become comfortable.
“A lot of people, both races, are dealing with trauma right now. These are leaders. The lower school and middle school kids are looking at them. It’s a big deal in the community that they play basketball at Collegiate or John Marshall or Henrico. The purpose of this (discussion) is respecting each other. If we can provide that safe space to talk, then that’s a positive.”
What’s the best-case scenario for the 804 Coaches for Change initiative moving forward?
“Baby steps,” Harris said. “I heard somebody say, there’s no cure for racism. It’s something you’ve got to keep working on. There’s a bigger message in all of this, bigger than basketball or football or any sport. Anybody who’s seen me coach knows I’m competitive, but I’m in this to teach values and make better people, not so much better basketball players. That’s what this is all about.”