Lessons From a Florida Gators Locker Room

Updated: Jun 5


Dan Mullen walks back to the locker room ahead of facing FSU in 2019. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

BY KASSIDY HILL

GATORBAIT COLUMNIST


Talking about sports right now, honestly, seems futile. How I can look out the window and the crying and wailing in the streets, hear the pain and suffering from brothers and sisters and then simply put it away to talk about the Florida Gators chances of beating the Georgia Bulldogs this year and making it to the College Football Playoff? I can’t, so I won’t. Doing so would be—at least in my heart—tone deaf and disingenuous. But I do still believe there is so much sports can teach us. The competitive fire and camaraderie of a team and fanbase has been stitched into the fabric of our country just as much as the prejudices and inequitable division of opportunity that is currently tearing it apart. I believe the former can do it’s part to help heal the latter. This is how.

A locker room—and for this instance we will be using football as an example—is comprised of 85-100 guys. They come from all different backgrounds, parts of the country, races, religions, socio-economic households, families and so much more that differentiate and define us. In a locker room, those differences are set aside in order to come together and all work towards a common goal. It almost forces a sense of respect. While having it come by naturally would be ideal, it’s hard to be upset at anything good for us being fostered, like mom forcing us to eat our vegetables growing as a kid.

On Wednesday, Head Coach Dan Mullen joined the Pat McAfee Show to talk about a number of topics, one being how he hopes his team reacts to the murder of George Floyd and subsequent conversations and protest that have emerged as a result.


"I think when you're in that locker room, when you're around all the different guys, it is different,” said Mullen.


“I wish some of that, more of that, would get out into society, that feeling, that togetherness, that teamness. You can't put yourselves in other people's shoes and know how they feel, know how they think, and know how it is. But I think it's important to respect other people in that way. It's important to respect what it must be like to go through that.”



As much as sports can clearly teach us, their absence right now due to the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 is almost serendipitous. There are no distractions, there is nothing to pull our attention away from the conversation we currently need to have. And it's a conversation that looks to be building steam. Athletic Director Scott Stricklin and all Florida Gators coaches released a statement on Wednesday stating the following:


"Respect. What does that mean to us?


Respect is a core value of the Florida Gators.


Respect: We treat each other with fairness, honesty, kindness, and civility.


Sometimes honesty is hard. Sometimes it means taking a look in the mirror and asking ourselves if we're upholding our values. Right now, we're doing that, as should all Americans.


Racism, brutality, violence, oppression, injustice and indifference are not manifestations of respect. When we look around and see these things occurring, we have no choice but to stand together shoulder to shoulder, committed to doing more and demanding more.


This will require continuous action. This will require honest, tough, often uncomfortable conversations. For many of us, that means taking the initiative in educating ourselves, listening to and believing in experiences that are different from our own. It means hearing the voices of our Black teammates, colleagues, neighbors and friends, for whom the best ideals of our nation often remain a promise unfulfilled.


And the bottom line is everyone can do more. So, from this moment forward, we recommit ourselves to accountability and living out our values, to respecting each other by seeing each person's full humanity, to better understanding experiences, pain, struggles, challenges and realities that are different from our own. And to being the change we want to see in our community, our nation and our world."


When linebacker Mohamoud Diabate joined the Gators football team last year, he brought a new perspective to his team. Diabate, an Auburn, Alabama native, is Muslim. It’s not a far stretch to realize that’s an anomaly in the locker room of a Southeastern Conference football team. But as the stoic and soft spoken linebacker—who finished his freshman season with 18 tackles, 4.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries—got to know his team, he taught them things as well.

While speaking with media before the 2019 Orange Bowl against Virginia, Gators corner Marco Wilson reflected on the differences that make up a team saying, “I think everybody would just respect everybody whether it’s religion or their backgrounds.”


Then he paused, weighing his next admittance before reflectively continuing, “I mean, I did see a difference when Mohamoud came in this year.


“He’s not the same religion as most people and he may do his own prayers and we respect it. That’s how he grew up and we grew up how we grew up and so I wouldn’t want somebody disrespecting how I grew up. So when we see him doing his own thing, we respect it.

“It gives you a different perspective, lets you know that everybody’s not the same and you need to respect people know matter where they’re from or what they do.”


It seems so simple, simply listening to someone else and respecting their experiences that led to the position. Then again, shouldn’t it be that simple?


When an athlete says something we agree with, we commend them for “being bold, unashamed and speaking up.” When they say something we don’t agree with, they’re told to “stick to sports.” Athletes are in a unique position, with a very large public persona that is too often forced into a small box. But in a world that is straining against itself and begging to learn from the past, amplifying different voices will be what helps us figure out where we’re fractured and how to put it back together in a better way. With so many eyes on athletes, the worst thing we can do—not only for ourselves but for the betterment of society—is to tell them to be quiet.

And maybe, just maybe, we can learn something as well.

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