The death of George Floyd in Minnesota has sparked nationwide protests calling for an end to police brutality and highlighting racism in America. Here’s how those involved in Southeast Kansas athletics are responding.
Shay Kelly | Parsons High School, Independence Community College | Former Basketball Player
“My first experience with racism was at the age of 12. I was at a basketball tournament in Columbus. The mother of another player said, “get that monkey off the court!” But at the time I wasn’t really aware of exactly what she was saying. As I got older, I realized that being an athlete was kind of a stereotype specifically for the blacks in my community. Which of course, not every black person played a sport, but it was definitely the expectation. Throughout high school there would be certain schools who would say things to us athletes, and it was brushed off. No one ever told them not to say those things to us either. Most racial acts were tolerated here. And it’s been tolerated for so long, some people don’t even understand the difference. Not a lot of those people understand that we are human and words hurt. Even if it’s meant to be a distraction to promote your team, they weren’t mindful or kind. More than ever now, coaches need to express to their players that they won’t ever know the black experience but they see it. They hear. And just let them know that they have people who stand for them. In a world full of hate, you have people who truly love you and want to see you do better.”
Jason Hinson | Labette Community College | Men’s Basketball Assistant Coach
“We are protesting because we are fed up, out of options and tired of begging for our voices to be heard. Protests are not supposed to be convenient and comfortable for the attention we are seeking. I’ve seen a lot of milquetoast statements from corporations, coaches and programs but very few have even mentioned the party that we are demanding change from. We need a complete reform of the standard policing of this nation.
I don’t have the answers to what exactly needs to change. As the oppressed, we shouldn’t also be burdened with finding the solution to our oppression. I do know that if you’re in a position of power and you’re not actively working towards and making changes, then that means you either don’t want change, or you don’t want to offend those who don’t want change.”
Eric Swanson | Parsons High School | Principal, Boys Basketball Assistant Coach
“We would love to think that we don’t have race issues in Parsons or in our schools, but it does exist. As someone who grew up in a white middle-class household in North Central Kansas, I won’t even pretend to say that I know what our kids and families go through or how they feel about race issues. Last night, I went to bed worried about my son who lives on the east side of Wichita and works at a Target there. I realized today that a lot of moms and dads feel that way every single day because of the color of their skin. That’s what we all have to wrap our heads around. Some staff members have asked to meet next week to talk about how we can be there for our students, trying to be proactive as we prepare to return to school in the fall.”
Mitch Rolls | Labette Community College | Women’s Basketball Head Coach
“It is my belief that these protests are a product of the American people being tired of seeing our own citizens dying at the hands of rogue police officers. We all know plenty of great men and women who serve our communities with respect and dignity. Those officers are the majority and that needs to be stated a thousand times over. They do not abuse the power they have been given. They deserve more credit and respect than we have ever given. Their jobs are at the top of the list when it comes to the most dangerous jobs in America. But at the same time, we have all too often seen the glaring minority of rogue officers who abuse their power and have put the people of our nation at great risk. Similarly, the majority of protesters are exercising their freedom of speech the correct way, while the minority of protesters are stealing and being violent. Both are examples of abuses of power and circumstance. I don’t believe racism has ever died in our country and it may not ever fully go away. It’s our job as a society to do our best to punish and push racism away with the best of our abilities. It affects all of us. We all suffer and we all have to endure the pain if we are truly a united nation. No American citizen deserves to die with their hands behind their back locked in handcuffs. Self defense is the only justifiable reason to take someone’s life and that simply was not the case with George Floyd.
As far as sports having the ability to bridge that gap between different races, I think sports teams historically have been the best example of ways we can all get along regardless of race, class, sexuality, nationality, etc. The goal of any team is to be successful and have a group of people to unite for a common goal. If we viewed our society the same way, I believe we would find the answers to our problems. If our society decided as a whole that it was our mission to make life fair, equal and to ultimately avoid marginalizing anybody in our society, we could achieve that goal. Instead, we look to point the finger back and forth in an effort to justify our selfish intentions. That further increases the division between us and keeps us in a perpetual cycle of having to fight for our individual rights. It may sound very simple, but I’ve played for teams and I’ve coached teams that have united together. I’ve also been a part of teams that loved to place the blame on others. It’s no secret which of those teams ended up having more success. That is the life lesson I’ve been able to take from seeing the two different kinds of approaches.”
Jeff Schibi | Parsons High School | Football Head Coach
“First and foremost, I am not a public political person and tend to keep my thoughts to myself when it comes to highly debated political issues that involve the president and parties involved. This is much different than that. I have always said this to my friends and family but we are truly blessed and lucky in the Parsons community that we have the opportunity to grow up in a diverse culture. My parents would welcome everyone into our home so I learned this at a young age thanks to them. We are all family and love each other. Killing innocent people is wrong and there’s no excuse for the events leading up to the protests. I think the first step is realizing there is a racism bridge and working together to fix the problem. We need to recognize and celebrate each other and our cultures. We need to do better as a country.”
Rodney Vigil | Cherryvale High School | Athletic Director and Boys Basketball Coach
“I think some people have the tendency to categorize others without knowing who they really are as a person. I little humanity and compassion can go a long way and do wonderful things.”
Nick Pfeifer | Erie High School | Boys Basketball Head Coach
“While I think there are probably many different whys, as is usually the case, and I certainly can’t speak for anyone, I would say frustration and unfairness would be at the forefront. When people are not being treated rightly or justly, especially when it appears repetitive and continual, action of some sort is often the result. While I do think sports can and absolutely should be a positive example of many different people working together and being treated equally, I don’t think sports are the most important thing here. I think people acting and doing the right thing when they could choose otherwise or are in a position to mistreat someone is. This is certainly the much harder question and one that historically the United States, and really the whole world, has struggled with over time.”
Brianna Volmer | Labette County High School | Volleyball, Girls Basketball Assistant Coach
“I have struggled to find the words this week about the recent events in our country. First, I would like to send my prayers to the family of George Floyd. My heart is saddened, frustrated and angered by his senseless death and the death of so many others in our country. Nobody regardless of race, sexuality, or background should have to walk the streets of any community in fear for their lives. I believe that the black community is sick of their voices not being heard and the same senseless killings happening, over and over again, without change. I join them and the many supporters in saying that you matter. It is my hope that together we can make a change in the very community that we call home in Southeast Kansas. The platform that I have as a coach is one that I take very seriously. It is my responsibility as well as the others that coach at Labette County High School to educate our student athletes to love one another regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or background. It is my hope that we can come together and love one another and make the world a better place.”
Jaran Dixon | Parsons High School | Football, Boys Basketball Assistant Coach
“The root cause to all the protests in our country right now. is no secret. It is due to lack of equality. No matter what race you are, we all want to be accepted or treated fairly and equally. Protesters right now are screaming for more allies. Our black community needs help. It’s puzzling to me then when America wants to go to war with another country, everyone is all in. We have a war in our own country and I see people turning blind eyes to it because it doesn’t pertain to them. That has to stop. It’s time to fight together because it is the right thing to do. Fight with and for love.
As far as athletics in Southeast Kansas, and what they can do to bridge the gap, follow Parsons, Kansas. I invite everyone reading this to come to our school, our community, our practices, our classrooms. Every day you’ll see how blessed we are. You won’t very much racism in Parsons because we have been diverse from the beginning. That is why I never want to coach at another school. I’ll take a huge amount of pride at coaching at such a diverse school and living and working in such a diverse community. Parsons represents who I am and what my family and I stand for.
I want to end with this — I know the devil is working at his finest right now, I can feel it, we all can feel it. Find God. He will make a way for us.”
Jaunc Bradshaw | Chetopa High School | Athletic Director, Girls Basketball Head Coach
“What is going on in our country is very unfortunate. Racism should not be condoned in any form. Athletics can play a big role as we as coaches can teach the young men and women to grow up and be great leaders and advocates for every person in this world.”
Keith Wiatrak | St. Paul High School | Football, Boys Basketball Head Coach
“In response to the protesting, first of all, I think it’s horrible what happened to George Floyd and I believe the focus should be on him and his family. I think the vandalism and looting solves absolutely nothing and there are people out there that use any reason possible as an excuse to do it. Justice needs to happen for George and his family, so it sets a precedent. Unfortunately, there are many good officers who are paying for the sins of others and I think that’s unjust.”
Greg Lambkins | Oswego High School | Boys Basketball Head Coach
“I totally believe that people should protest. Being an African American, I’ve been through racial profiling. The protests are good. The violence behind it is not. People just beating up people for the sake of it is crap. But the protests are real and the fight is real. It doesn’t help when our authorities make it even worse by antagonizing us. So that’s where I’m at. I believe in the protests.”
Heather Wilson | Labette County High School | Volleyball Head Coach
“Racism is a complicated issue with fear and ignorance at its root. I think it’s perpetuated through generations of people because we are innately taught by our parents and elders to fear what we do not know. In athletics, kids have the opportunity to see teammates at their best and their worst. They have the time to see past the color of their skin to their true character. Our athletes get to know their team on a personal level and become family. And good families, like strong teams, aren’t totally homogeneous. They are diverse. Our strength often lies in our differences. My job as a coach is to encourage my team to imagine walking a mile in their teammates’ shows to teach empathy, respect and tolerance and to ask questions when we do not understand. However, it’s become increasingly more clear to me that as a middle class white woman, I have no idea how people of color are feeling right now. My new job is to listen and learn, to stand up, and speak out and to embolden my girls to do the same.”
Travis Young | Cherryvale High School | Football Head Coach
“In Southeast Kansas athletics, we can help bridge the gaps by creating and building culture and values for our team that create a brotherhood for all athletes on the team. This will in turn help raise those athletes, so that when they become adults they can narrow the gap of racism and be examples for others.”
Abby Farabi | St. Mary’s Colgan High School | Girls Basketball Head Coach
“The biggest thing for me personally, and I don’t know how to put this in good words, but how I want to raise my kids and my family is to teach them that right is right and wrong is wrong. It doesn’t matter if you’re black, blue, white or green. You have to treat others the way you want to be treated. I don’t know how we fix it and it makes me so sad that our world is like this today.”
Anthony Houk | Parsons High School | Boys Basketball Head Coach
“I believe the root cause of the situation our nation is in right now is hate and the lack of desire by too many people to understand what the true meaning of racism is. I hope and pray that the police brutality towards black people ends now and that no family or community ever experiences again what took place in Minnesota. I hope and pray for an end to racism. Will that happen? It will not happen until we change our thinking and change our hearts. Right now, many believe because they post something on social media in support for black lives that it makes them not racist. I want to see more support. I know some of the support is genuine, but posting alone will not stop racism. The empty words of support followed by zero action and zero change in the heart and mindset is a racist approach that must be addressed. Posting your support does not eliminate you from being a racist. Knowing a black person does not mean you are not a racist. It is the daily, preconceived ideas or thoughts towards black people that lead to major blowups.
Our teams have had visiting teams come to our gyms and stadiums and make monkey noises. Our teams, numerous times, have had opposing players and student sections use racial slurs and make offensive remarks. Our team bus was approached by a group of nearly thirty kids in a nearby town making racial comments. Our team has had to leave restaurants due to the ignorance of strangers at state basketball tournaments. Yet time and time again, we challenge our players to just “be the better person.” This has to stop. It is a daily fight for many of our kids here at USD 503. It’s a fight that I know they are willing to keep fighting, yet it is a fight that they should not have to fight.
It is so easy to say “I support black lives.” We need more people to prove it. We need more people who will put loving action behind their kind words. Not just one post, or one protest, but we need 365 days of love. We need more people to choose love daily and not hate. I will end with a piece from the bible about God’s kingdom. In the book of Revelation, it speaks of a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb.
So if we know that God is love and God’s kingdom includes all of us, then we must choose to live that out here on earth. One thing we talk about with our team all of the time is love. I know our team will do all they can to be a beacon of light and of love for our community and do everything we can to make a difference right here and that hopefully it will be contagious and others will follow.”