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How college football stars joined campus activists in the fight for justice

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Importance of student-athletes' recent protests and activism (1:27)

Paul Finebaum says Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill's public stance against the state flag is unprecedented and could spark a change in the dynamics of power across college athletics. (1:27)

On June 22, Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill tweeted he would no longer represent the state of Mississippi unless the Confederate battle emblem on the state flag was removed. Two days later, coaches from Mississippi State, Ole Miss and other schools lobbied for the change in Jackson.

On June 28, Mississippi state legislators voted to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.

Hill's tweet provided the high-profile impetus to help activists finally get rid of the flag that had been a source of pain and controversy for many years. Democratic State Rep. Omeria Scott even introduced an amendment (which was later tabled) to name the flag change act after Hill.

"The voice of this young man was a tremendous voice," she said.

"He thought about how things should be changed," said Tonaria Smith, president of the Black Student Association at Mississippi State. "He thought about the future. He thought about what things need to take place in order for the athletes to feel their pride of playing for Mississippi."

It was the latest example of a college football player joining students, faculty and others in the name of social justice. Over recent weeks, there have been other protests involving star athletes, from Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond advocating for the removal of a divisive campus statue to former Clemson stars Deshaun Watson and Deandre Hopkins petitioning to change the name of a campus building.

On June 6, Ole Miss football players joined their coaches and staff in a unity march to combat racism and police brutality, and to promote the Black Lives Matter movement. Players carried signs that read, "I can't breathe," "I am George Floyd" and "Silence is not OK."

"We're here because racism is here," Ole Miss defensive lineman Ryder Anderson, a senior from Katy, Texas, told the crowd. "All across America, including Mississippi, including right here in Oxford. So my challenge to you is to fight it."

Anderson and linebacker MoMo Sanogo led another march Saturday, centered around combating systemic racism and calling for the Oxford confederate monument to be removed.

"This is the first time I've seen Ole Miss athletes at this capacity speak out against systemic oppression," said Nicholas Crasta, president of the Black Student Union at Ole Miss who helped the players plan Saturday's event. "Their following is just so different. The thousands of followers each of the players have, the presence that they have on campus and how recognizable their faces are, it just adds a big impact and has a very positive impact."

Anderson and Sanogo also joined other players who appeared in a two-minute video June 20, in which they praise the decision to remove a confederate soldier statue from the middle of campus, and call for the removal of another confederate statue from Oxford Square.

"They have very strong emotions toward these issues," Crasta said. "I feel like they've been wanting to speak up, and now that the NCAA and the NFL are kind of going back on their words about speaking out and actually allowing it, they're feeling more comfortable and feeling like they're more able to speak out without hurting their careers."

The protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died on May 25 while in custody of Minneapolis police, have boiled over to college campuses and opened the door for more Black college athletes to speak out with less fear of retribution.

For several years, University of Texas students have sought to rename Robert Lee Moore Hall on campus. Moore, a prominent mathematician, taught at Texas until 1969 and did not allow Black students to take his classes. He also believed educating female students was a "waste of taxpayer dollars."

Jacob Baker, a senior anthropology major at Texas, started a petition three weeks ago to again call for the change. Then, on June 12, a group statement issued by Texas football players listed the RLM building as one of four that should be renamed.

"They have helped with not only the RLM renaming petition, but the other efforts that the students have adopted concerning the past that UT has with racism," Baker said.

The Texas players' statement also requested the removal of one of the school's biggest traditions, dropping "The Eyes of Texas," the official school song played before and after every football game, and to no longer require that players sing it. Baker, who is white, said he didn't know the controversial origins of the song -- its debut was during a minstrel show featuring performers in blackface -- until the statement was issued, and many other Texas alums said the same thing.

"The buzz surrounding the whole 'Eyes of Texas' thing ... that's not something that's new to the Black community at UT," said Malcolm McGregor, a senior management information systems major and the president of the Black Student Alliance at Texas. "That's something that we were all aware of, something that we have all kind of spoken about. I would say that it's hard to be in any sort of like Black areas and never have heard that sentiment. So for them to say it so loud and so boldly, I was so proud of them, so proud to be a part of this community because they weren't afraid to say what we've all been thinking for so long."

McGregor said the limitations in workouts and practices because of the coronavirus pandemic has actually been helpful in the campus organizations, and athletes having a stronger connection.

"A lot of the small percentage of the UT population that does happen to be Black [about 5%] stems from our athletes, and their life is a lot more involved from day's begin to day's end with practices, weights, that sort of thing," he said. "Now, they're able to meet. We get to have an open dialogue, pick their brains and realize the things that they experience are drastically different than what students who aren't on teams experience. It's really important. They have such a big platform and are an important part of our university's culture. It means a lot for all of us because they see it's not just the Black Student Alliance, not just the African Student Organization, not just the NAACP. It's all of us. We all feel this way.

"We may not be a huge percentage of the UT population, but we do matter as students, we matter to the school. And if they agree, then these things will make us more comfortable. The athletes being a part of it gives us a more united front, like we mean business. "

At Texas A&M, Mond has become one of the strongest voices calling for the removal of the statue of former university president Lawrence Sullivan Ross. The "Sully" statue, built in 1919 and placed in the center of campus, honors a man credited with saving the university from financial ruin during his seven-year tenure as president. But Ross left a layered legacy, especially around race, because of his military career as an "Indian fighter" on the Texas frontier and a brigadier general in the Confederate army.

Mond outlined his position in a June 16 Twitter post headlined "LETS NOT FORGET SULLY." Last Friday, he and several teammates led a march that ended at the Sully statue, where they met several older men protecting the monument. Mond told a crowd, "We ain't going to take half of his story. History is history, you're going to take it holistically."

"Oftentimes football players are looked at as just bodies, and aren't looked at as people who have opinions and people who have something to say," Texas A&M student Erica Pauls said. "I think it's absolutely amazing that Kellen Mond is using his platform to speak on what is important to him. Other students love to see that he's been able to use his platform in this way. Especially with the Black students who agree with him, they love that he's speaking out."

Pauls leads a student organization pushing for another campus statue, one to honor Matthew Gaines, a former slave who became a Texas state senator in 1869 and pushed for the land grant act that led to Texas A&M's creation. The Gaines statue initiative is separate from the controversy around the Sully statue, but Pauls has seen a significant uptick in support, including from athletes.

"Often athletes are so far removed from our community, but why wouldn't they want this person to be honored on our campus?" Pauls said. "He's a representation of them, a representation of me and of all of us."

Current players aren't the only ones taking action. Former stars at rivals Clemson and South Carolina both accelerated movements to rename buildings on those campuses.

The calls to remove John C. Calhoun's name from Clemson's honors college had been coming for years. Calhoun, a U.S. vice president and South Carolina senator, was a vocal slavery advocate whose son-in-law founded Clemson and whose plantation home, Fort Hill, sits on the Clemson campus.

In spring 2019, a group called Reclaim & Rename formed and circulated a student petition to remove Calhoun's name, and it received 200-250 signatures. Students Roann Abdeladl and Claudia Wong continued the push in the fall and tried to work with the administration, but to no avail.

"People would tell me, 'Making change at Clemson is small drops in a bucket. You're not going to see any big things happen during your time,'" said Abdeladl, a junior from Greenville, S.C.

After country-wide protests escalated in recent months, they prepared another petition. Then, on June 4, former Clemson wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins contacted Hannah Connelly, a recent Clemson graduate who had helped the Reclaim & Rename group. Hopkins wanted to help and promote the movement. Abdeladl and Wong spent the weekend working on the petition, even sending it to Hopkins to proofread before publishing it to Change.org on June 8. That afternoon, Hopkins tweeted it. Former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson followed with his own tweet. The petition would receive more than 24,000 signatures.

Four days later, Clemson's board voted to remove Calhoun's name, and asked the South Carolina Assembly to remove the name of Benjamin Tillman, a white supremacist, from the school's main building.

"I really don't think that the name would be changed without someone like DeAndre reaching out to us and supporting us so much," Wong said.

"It definitely shows the power that athletes have at schools like Clemson to make change," Abdeladl said. "Anyone that goes to Clemson, anyone that's heard of Clemson, largely has heard about it because of athletics. This was a really good opportunity to show football players and other players the power that they can carry beyond just athletics, and how they can use their platform to create positive change on their campus.

"What a privilege they have."

On June 13, four current Clemson football players -- RB Darien Rencher, LB Mike Jones Jr., WR Cornell Powell and QB Trevor Lawrence, led an equality march to speak out against racism and police brutality.

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Swinney, Clemson football players take stand for racial justice

Harry Lyles Jr. reports from Clemson's campus, where head coach Dabo Swinney and members of the Tigers football team lead a community protest against racial injustice.

"It was very emotional" said Wong, a senior from Anchorage, Alaska. "It was the day after the name change, and we had all these amazing football players with big platforms showing support for the movement. That was such a happy moment. While they were giving their speeches, Old Main, which used to be called Tillman, the bell would go off in the background and it was very overwhelming. The football players gave amazing speeches.

"I couldn't believe little Clemson, South Carolina, could gather so many people in support, but I definitely think the attendance was due to the football players."

South Carolina alum Heather Armel saw what happened at Clemson and thought a similar strategy could work at her alma mater. Armel, who graduated in 2014 and now lives in Denver, thought back to discussions on campus about prominent segregationist Strom Thurmond, who served as the senator from South Carolina from 1956-2003, including a historic filibuster of the Civil Rights act of 1957. She couldn't believe the Strom Thurmond Wellness and Fitness Center was a prominent place for students to visit on campus, and wondered how that must have impacted her Black peers.

Armel recently started a Change.org petition to rename the building. She also reached out to prominent South Carolina athletes. Former WR Alshon Jeffrey told her he supported the movement and led the way. Then, former RB Marcus Lattimore joined in.

"They kind of vetted me in a way, to make sure I had the right intentions with this," she said. "Once we got Marcus on board, everyone was willing to post. He's so well-respected at the university."

As of now, 65 former South Carolina stars, including two-time Olympic gold medalist Natasha Hastings and current Miss USA, Cheslie Kryst, who was a track athlete at the school, have shared graphics Armel made for them to join the campaign. Armel didn't ask them to share the petition. She says their voices are much more impactful.

"The difference in 15,000 and 25,000 signatures isn't going to be what forces USC to say yes or no," she said. "It's going to be when 65 athletes with probably 2 million followers post about it. It just means the world to me that they're using their platform in that way."

Hill's decision to use his Twitter platform of more than 29,000 followers won't soon be forgotten in his home state, or on the Mississippi State campus. The SEC and NCAA both had stated they would no longer hold championships in Mississippi until the flag changed, but Hill's message was more powerful and personal, and ultimately sparked action.

"It's overwhelming," said Smith, the president of the Black Student Association at Mississippi State. "I'm sure football is his life, so for him to say he's going to give it up here in Mississippi, it shows how strong he feels. He decided to stand for something he believed in, instead of going with something he loves so dearly."