Amid 'critical time in our country,' Navy football creates Players Council for Racial Equality
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: July 30, 2020
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, Navy football convened a series of virtual team meetings to discuss systemic racism and social justice.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo termed those sessions “powerful, productive and impactful.” In fact, the 12th-year head coach was so moved by what he heard from players of all races and ethnicities he felt compelled to continue the conversation.
In June, Niumatalolo quietly created the Navy Football Players Council for Racial Equality. Veteran assistant Robert “RB” Green was appointed Director of Racial Equality to help shepherd the newly formed panel.
“I just wanted to keep the momentum going. This is a critical time in our country, and I believe our football program can be at the forefront of enacting change,” said Niumatalolo, who was recently named to the American Athletic Conference Racial Equality Action Group.
Green, a four-year letterman and three-year starter at cornerback for Navy from 1994-97 now in his sixth season as a defensive assistant, said Niumatalolo wants to do more than just put messages on social media.
“He has charged this council with accomplishing something positive,” Green said.
“I’m extremely honored that coach Niumat selected me for this role. I wanted to help move the social issue forward. I’m super excited about the opportunity to give back.”
Nine players were voted by their teammates to serve on the council, with three from each returning class. Its membership reflects the diversity of the Navy football team as senior class representatives Myles Fells (Black), Jackson Perkins (white) and Ian Blake (bi-racial) reflect.
Diego Fagot (white), Chance Warren (Black), Ben Fee (bi-racial) comprise the junior class reps, while Tama Tuitele (Polynesian), Perry Olsen (white) and Jacobi Rice (Black) are the sophomore members.
Green convenes two virtual meetings per week utilizing either the Zoom or Google platforms and is impressed by what has already been accomplished.
“We asked the players to develop a platform and that has already happened,” Green said. “Every one of these players is equally as passionate about the cause. They have come together for a shared purpose and are making significant progress.”
Green was raised in the west end of Atlanta, which consisted almost exclusively of Black residents during the 1970s and 80s. He attended Booker T. Washington High School, whose most famous graduate is none other than Martin Luther King Jr. Located nearby to where Green grew up is Ebenezer Baptist Church, which at one time featured Martin Luther King Sr. and Jr. as co-pastors.
While Green attended Booker T. Washington High, there was only one white teacher and zero white students. All the neighborhood businesses were owned by Black families and those folks, along with Black professionals such as school principals, doctors and lawyers, served as Green’s role models.
Commissioned as a Marine Corps officer, Green enjoyed a highly decorated career that included multiple deployments to the Middle East. He retired in 2017 as a lieutenant colonel after receiving numerous meritorious medals.
“Colonel Green is definitely the man for this job,” Fells said. “He brings so much to the table and has a unique perspective as an African American man from the south, a former Navy football player and a Marine Corps officer.”
In preparation for directing the Navy Football Players Council for Racial Equality, Green spent a weekend researching the civil rights movement to ensure he had a firm grasp of the history. During the inaugural meeting, he launched into a recitation of landmark events with details about important figures.
“I was stopped abruptly during my history lesson and told by the players that while they respect Dr. King, Rosa Parks and John Lewis, they were now talking about Freddy Gray and George Floyd,” Green said. “Basically, these young guys told me: ‘Sit down, old man. This is a different time, this is our fight, and this is where we’re taking it.‘”
Upon further consideration, Green realized the generational gap prompts the current Navy players to view these issues from a far different lens than he did. Green never thought there would be a Black president during his lifetime. These midshipmen grew up with Barack Obama serving as a two-term president.
Green’s grandmother worked as a sharecropper and he was aware of Klu Klux Klan activity in the deep south as a youngster. These midshipmen cannot believe there ever was an organization like the KKK.
“I was taught to never question the police. If stopped by the police, obey all commands, keep your hands on the steering wheel and never push back in any way,” Green said. “This current generation is taught to question. They know their rights. Their thought process is totally different than mine was.”
Fells made it clear the current players do respect and honor the past. The senior slotback is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, which played a prominent role in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In fact, Fells said his grandmother was offered an opportunity to be part of the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of Black students that challenged racial segregation in Arkansas public schools.
“Being raised by people whose lives were touched by those times gives us a responsibility to carry it on. It’s kind of a passing of the torch type deal,” Fells said. “We all know the history, and it’s essential to continue talking about civil rights because it’s an ongoing movement.
“You have to know where you came from in order to know where you are going. At same time, we need to keep the present at the forefront as far as what has been happening in this country.”
Fells said the first issue attacked by the council involved voter registration. Every returning member of the football team was asked to register to vote, while the incoming plebes will be encouraged to do so as well.
Other items on the agenda include a census drive in Baltimore City and surrounding areas, and local community outreach involving youth football programs as well as boys’ and girls’ clubs.
Navy football players have been asked to draft letters addressing racial equality and social justice issues that would be sent to their respective state and local representatives. Fells said that could be “very impactful” because the team features players from almost every state in the country.
Another idea is to take the plebes on a trip to tour the National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C.
“We have brainstormed a whole list of worthwhile ideas to put on paper and start attacking one by one,” Fells said.
Green said the council has contacted the City of Annapolis police department about participating in a round-table discussion. Current chief Edward Jackson seemed eager to initiate such a dialogue.
“We’re seeking understanding and education. We want to gain awareness from the police perspective,” Green said.
Another angle involves the curriculum at the Naval Academy and whether it’s inclusive of American history across the board. Green said the council has already met with the humanities department chair on this topic and would like to explore the possibility of discussing race relations through the Naval Academy Department of Ethics and Leadership.
Six Navy football players are members of the Midshipman Diversity Team that has long existed at the academy. Senior class president Cameron Kinley and classmates Jon Lee, Chris Pearson and Garrett Winn are joined by Fells and Rice in representing the program in that forum that is led by Capt. Tameka Lindsay, chief diversity and inclusion officer at the Naval Academy.
Additionally, the Naval Academy Athletic Association is establishing its own committee to address systemic racism and other social justice issues. Athletic director Chet Gladchuk said that group would consist of administrators along with coaches and athletes from all 33 varsity sports.
Both Green and Fells believe Navy football can set an example for the entire Brigade of Midshipmen. Niumatalolo has made developing a program-wide culture the highest priority of his tenure. There is a Navy Football Brotherhood that spans generations and espouses specific characteristics.
“That’s why I’m so appreciative of coach Ken, because he lives and breathes those ideals of diversity and inclusion and fosters that type of environment. Bigotry and hatred simply are not accepted,” Fells said. “We’re a family and a brotherhood and that’s what Navy football has always preached. We need to impose that type of mindset on the rest of the Brigade and throughout this country.”
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