Morgan State head football coach Tyrone Wheatley joined Glenn Clark Radio June 5 to talk about the conversations he’s had with his team following the death of George Floyd, who was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police May 25, how his players can influence change regarding racial inequality and more.
Wheatley is entering his second year as the head coach of the Bears after going 3-9 in 2019. Previously, he was a running backs coach at the college and pro levels, most notably at Syracuse (2010-2012) and Michigan (2015-2016) and with the Buffalo Bills (2013-2014) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2017-2018).
Wheatley was a running back at Michigan from 1991-1994, rushing for 4,178 yards and 47 touchdowns for the Wolverines. He was drafted in the first round of the 1995 NFL Draft by the New York Giants and enjoyed a successful career in the NFL from 1995-2004. He played four years with the Giants and six with the Oakland Raiders, accumulating 4,962 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground.
This has been edited for clarity and content.
Glenn Clark: It’s quite a time to be the head football coach at Morgan State, I can only imagine for a few different reasons clearly, particularly this week in this midst of this movement in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement really taking over this country and the issue being forced. What have the conversations been like for you with your guys in these moments?
Tyrone Wheatley: I addressed the team, and I told them first and foremost I love them. I told them whatever they’re feeling, it’s OK, and I support them. My only issue was if they took to the streets just be careful, because there’s a sinister evil out there. My narrative was all hands on deck. The day of the marcher is over. Going out and dying for a cause does no good, because you’re dead. You can’t fight from the grave. We need all hands on deck. That follows into that’s the reason why I’m here. This is the reason I’m so hard on you guys.
Now, I truly believe this generation, these issues are crossing color barriers, right? It’s crossing color barriers. For me as a head football coach, it’s not to just look at my guys as football players, but now it’s to help them put themselves in a position of influence, put them in a position of power to help make legislative change, to be aware, to go into the communities and to do the things they need to do to move that needle forward. Listen, will you wipe out racism? No, you will not. Like I said, there’s a sinister evil out there, but that squeaky wheel is getting a lot of attention because it’s making a lot of noise. But there’s enough of us to drown that noise out.
So going back to your question, just addressed the team and told them however they want to get their point across, I support that. Right now, football is just a microcosm but at the end of the day, fellas, we have to do this thing and move this needle in a direction of empowerment. And what that looks like is taking our power into our own hands, voicing your opinions, saying what you want to say, but at the same time you are in college. Get your degree, right? Get your degree. Let’s get into positions of influence and let’s make change.
GC: I think obviously in the aftermath of the question Drew Brees was asked this week, there’s been a lot of conversation about athletes in particular choosing to protest more visibly and maybe an entire team deciding they want to, a la Colin Kaepernick, take a knee this season. Have you had any of those conversations and would you be supportive of the team speaking out in that way?
TW: Let me just give you insight into who I am. I’m not a turn-the-other-cheek type guy. I’m an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Now you couple that into being a competitor, so my fuel burns bright 24/7, all day every day. But I have to be careful in how that is portrayed. So just listen to what I said, right? Listen to what I said. And someone on the other end of this line might hear, “Oh my God, he’s one of those guys who want to go out looting and burning and pillaging. Oh my God, he’s out for revenge.” No, that’s not what’s meant. So I have to be careful as to how I articulate my feelings to my team.
… What I’m telling them is, “My fire burns bright all the time, so if you want to kneel and protest, I am with you. If you want to have a peaceful rally, I am with you.” The only thing I ask of them is let’s not do it because it’s popular. Let’s not do it because it’s the trend. I always ask them, “Now, what’s next?” And what that means is when all this dies down – and it’s going to die down – what’s next? What follows? Are you going to be that same person when all of this was going on at the height as when it starts to tail off? Are you going to be that same person?
That’s what I’m talking about. Let’s not do it because it’s convenient now. Are you going to have the same convictions and feelings and thought process a year from now, two years from now, five years from now? So I tell them, “We’re not going to do things because right now it’s convenient, it’s the time to do it. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it and let’s be this way and let’s be conscientious of it from here on out through eternity.
GC: Can going through these moments grow your team when you have these conversations? I know when you line up and you play a football game, what happens on the field is what actually matters, do you sense that guys can come together as a group even when you haven’t been able to have them in front of you right, just through these types of conversations?
TW: I do believe so. I do believe so, but I also believe it could tear them apart because even as a culture, even as a race, we’re still not monolithic, right? We still have our views. We have our experiences. We have our interpretations. It doesn’t come to one monolithic thought process, right? So it very well could tear apart a team, a la Drew Brees. When I was with the Jacksonville Jaguars … when the entire Colin Kaepernick thing started, to some of the white players who felt a certain way about the flag, we kept saying it’s not about the flag.
And they said, “Well, it is. It’s disrespectful to the flag.” And I said, “OK, but just set this aside for one moment. Set the flag aside for one moment.” And I told them, “If you’re a little religious, if the church of people, if no matter where we are we can congregate and we can, quote-unquote, make church wherever we are as a congregation of people, then we are the church. We are the church.” The church isn’t the structure. The church is the people, right? The Constitution says, “We the people.” So if the flag quote-unquote represents us and we the people, we are the flag, are we not?
That flag is constructed from us. So one of your brothers is in dire straits, that’s in pain, you can’t set aside flag for one moment to look in your brother’s eye and see his pain and say, “I’m with you. Solidarity.” But you place the flag as the overarching symbol and say, “We’re going to cover it up because you’re disrespecting the flag.” No, I’m not. If that flag represents us as a people, and it’s representing us and I’m crying out for help, then you should help me. You had a chance to set aside your differences and understand that death affects all races. Murder affects all races. Because when you turn a blind eye … it goes back to perception.
How you live, the lens that you saw life through, let’s try and change the lens. Try to see it through somebody else’s eyes for once and try to understand. And that’s all I’m asking people for and this is all I asked the team to do is understand it … the gathering of information so now we can process it to move forward and not have something to go back in a negative thought and say, “See? There we go again.” How do we move forward? It’s amazing to me – and I can’t speak for no one else – it’s just amazing to me, the way the younger generation is coming about. I love to see how younger people are challenging their parents’ thought processes and trying to correct them.
I was just looking at it earlier. This young lady was on Instagram and she’s recording and her father’s speaking about [how] he works in the ghetto and how his perception is and she’s just laying into him. Man, it brought tears to my eyes, right? It was incredible. So now let’s just take that societal issue and let’s bring that to the field. Will the daughter stand or will she kneel? The daughter’s going to kneel but the dad’s going to stand, right?
So that’s a house divided – a house divided. And it goes back to the very first question you asked me is all perceptions on one team, it can tear it apart but we must understand and sometimes set aside my convictions and to understand somebody else’s, and that’s what makes us human. That’s what makes us civil – the understanding, compassion, humility and empathy – not sympathy, empathy – of one another, for me to set aside my thoughts and what I understand to be true to sit and say, “OK, listen man. I’m with you. Let’s take the knee.”
Kyle Ottenheimer: How do we make sure we move the conversation forward if this moment is no longer just the popular thing and it’s a conversation that we’re having? How do we all make sure that the change is actually taking place and moving forward?
TW: It’s what I said before. We understand that there’s an evil. … I’m human. I’m still trying to put a face or a label on it, whatever you want to call it. I just call it a squeaky wheel, and what happens is when that wheel starts to squeak, we have to drown it out. It’s the old adage, “If you see something, say something,” right? If you see it, say something. If somebody posts something on social media and it isn’t right, get after them. If your friend is saying something and you’re at a party, it could be just you and it could be 100 other people. You’ve got to say something. You have to say something.
It’s one of those deals where that wheel can’t become the loudest. It may be the smallest. It would be a great study. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure the people in this world with true hate in their heart, I don’t think they exceed those numbers [of] people with great intentions. Here’s the issue: There are far too many people that stand in the middle, that want to be comfortable and don’t want to tip the scales one way or the other, right? You can’t do that.
It’s almost like, using a sports analogy, “Hey, you’re either in or you’re out. You’re either bought in or you’re bought out.” Where are you? And so if you see it, say something. If you hear it, drown it out. And that’s how it has to continue to go, and then all of a sudden it becomes habitual and then it stops being habitual and just becomes part of the fabric of who we are and then it just becomes a part of life. And then it truly becomes, now, culture.
For more from Wheatley, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Morgan State Athletics