BLOOMINGTON — Indiana football coach Tom Allen has built the culture of his program on the slogan LEO — love for each other, no matter what the circumstances.
As the first 68 IU football players returned to campus this week for voluntary workouts, Allen wants his players to know that love extends to open dialogue about the civil unrest that has gripped the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
“I just want them to know that we’re here for them, that we’ll listen,” Allen said. “I want to know what they’re feeling, I want to know what’s going on the inside of their mind. Sometimes you can tell when a guy’s not right, but it’s harder when you’re apart.
“You have to be able to rely on that previously built relationship to just to know your guys well enough to know when something’s not the way it needs to be. Listening and supporting them right now is very important.”
Several African-American IU football players, including star senior receiver Whop Philyor, have voiced concerns on social media about social injustice since Floyd’s death. Allen was one of the first Big Ten football coaches to express concerns about racial inequity on social media as well.
“All I was doing was really just following my heart, what I felt was the right thing to do,” Allen said. “I witnessed, like all of us, I witnessed something that was horrible on video that I knew was wrong. We all know it was wrong, and so I just felt compelled to, in my heart that — I tell our team all the time you’ve got to live your life with conviction, and that means you’re willing to take a stand for what’s right. That to me is really at the core of what I chose to do.”
For an IU football roster that is 57.8 percent African-American, led by an African-American quarterback in sophomore Michael Penix Jr., it showed Allen was true to the culture he’s established.
Since Floyd’s death, college football programs have been under the microscope regarding their handling of race and the freedom to express social justice issues. It has resulted in some uncomfortable stories, and some change. Earlier this week, Iowa football strength coach Chris Doyle was forced to resign with a $1.1 million buyout amid claims of racially biased, demeaning behavior from former African-Americans who played for the Hawkeyes. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy vowed this week to “make changes” after former players expressed concerns about a culture that created uneasiness for African-Americans. The revelations came after Gundy posted a picture wearing a T-shirt of a right-wing news network, OAN, which has referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as “a farce.”
When IU’s entire team returns by the end of the month, Allen said the next step in the process is to set up a meeting with his team and local and area law enforcement.
“That is a very important part of all this,” Allen said. “To be able to sit down and talk man-to-man and voice concerns and things that they feel and things that’s going on in their heads and be able to have an open forum. To be able to have that safe space.”
It was already a tumultuous offseason for IU’s football players before the COVID-19 shutdown, with former team captains Coy Cronk and Peyton Ramsey leaving as graduate transfers and standout tight end Peyton Hendershot being arrested in a domestic violence incident. Since the shutdown, IU football has encountered two more tragic incidents. Wide receiver Cam Wilson’s parents were killed in a suspected murder-suicide over Mother’s Day Weekend, and popular former IU defensive lineman Chris Beaty was shot to death outside of his home in downtown Indianapolis amid the Floyd protests.
“What’s happened these last few months, it’s been hard,” Allen said. “I don’t think you realize how hard it really is maybe until you take a step back and let some of these things pass. When you’re in it, you’re just fighting those battles as they come and you’re just mustering the energy. It’s probably just more of the emotional drain that it has on you that you don’t always realize how taxing that can be. I mean you got to be there for your guys.”
Being there can mean a hug, some words of encouragement, or simply just listening.
“They just want us to hear how they’re feeling and then supporting them, being right there with them,” Allen said. “Just lock arm and arm and walk through life together, as hard as it may be and as great as it may be, and right now it’s really hard.
“That’s the message I’m getting. Sometimes as coaches you want to have all the answers. We want to say all the right things. Sometimes you just need to shut your mouth and listen. That’s what I’m trying to do.”