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LSU coach Will Wade congratulates Skylar Mays after his last-second field goal gave the Tigers a 60-59 win over Mississippi State on Saturday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Skylar Mays stood on the Louisiana State Capitol steps with his left arm draped behind the backs of fellow protestors.

Mays, a former LSU basketball player who graduated last month, participated in a peaceful demonstration, protesting racism and excessive police force. He walked through downtown streets Sunday with hundreds of other Baton Rouge residents, stood alongside his siblings and chanted “George Floyd.”

“We’re just trying to make change the best way we know how,” Mays said in an interview with WBRZ.

Floyd died one week earlier when a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for several minutes during an arrest. Floyd, 46, laid face down on the pavement in handcuffs. He gasped for air, repeatedly saying, “I can’t breathe.”

Floyd’s death, the latest of an unarmed black citizen at the hands of police, sparked outrage throughout the country. As protests and unrest swept across America, LSU athletes and coaches spoke out against racism and inequality. Multiple coaches released statements seeking positive change. Some athletes used social media to share their feelings. They hope to make a difference.

“For our generation, it’s starting to become normal that black people are getting killed by cops,” Mays told WBRZ. “It’s sad, because there’s a lot of great cops out here that do their job the right way. Then you have some bad fruits. It’s good that we’re making progress and taking steps in the right direction with things like this.”

Athletes and coaches have platforms to effect change, and for the past week, many have used their voices. Those who spoke from LSU joined a wave of athletes and coaches expressing their anger. Dozens of sports figures, from Lakers star LeBron James to Georgia coach Kirby Smart, have used social media to ask for reform.

“The black community needs our help,” former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow wrote on Twitter last week. “They have been unheard for far too long. Open your ears, listen, and speak. This isn’t politics. This is human rights.”

The responses from LSU administrators, athletes and coaches has grown in the week since Floyd’s death. Some players shared their opinions on personal social media accounts in the days that followed. Saturday afternoon, LSU football shared a video from Nike with the caption “Let’s Be The Change.”

A day later, LSU released a letter signed by school leaders, including athletic director Scott Woodward. The statement recognized a “racial divide that exists in our nation,” and it said LSU supports those “who want a more just and humane society.” The letter committed to promoting an inclusive community. It did not list concrete plans for action.

By Monday afternoon, at least five LSU coaches, including softball coach Beth Torina, men’s basketball coach Will Wade and women’s basketball coach Nikki Fargas, had released their own statements denouncing inequality. Torina and Wade, both white, said they cannot understand the racism black men and women experience, but they pledged their support for finding a solution.

“At this point, though, all words ring hollow,” Wade wrote. “Now is not a time for words. Now is a time for action. I don’t yet know what my actions will entail, but I am going to listen to the members of our team and I’m going to listen to other thought leaders on this subject, and I’m going to be the best ally I can be moving forward.

“There remains much more work to do to combat injustice and I fully embrace the responsibility of doing my part to stand up for what is right. We must all do more.”

Later, the LSU women’s basketball team shared a joint statement. Team members expressed frustration over continued racism and supported peaceful protests because “we must no longer remain silent.” For most of their lives, they have seen videos of black men and women dying at the hands of law enforcement.

“We are young,” they wrote, “yet we are tired.”

Fargas posted an individual statement less than an hour after her team. Alongside a poem from Langston Hughes titled “Justice,” she encouraged everyone to speak out against racism and inequality. Fargas also stressed the importance of voting in local elections to create change.

“Make those in charge know our demands for criminal justice and police reform,” Fargas wrote.

As anger grips the nation, athletes and coaches will continue to speak out. They had been told for decades to refrain from sharing their opinions about social issues. They often hear “stick to sports” when they discuss something other than games and training.

But many have resisted, and over the past week, even more have expressed their opinions, trying to help America find peace. Some at LSU have now joined. They want to live in a society where no one fears for their lives. They want to promote change.

Monday morning, junior wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase typed the three words Floyd said as he gasped for air, the three words that have become synonymous with racism, inequality and excessive force in recent years. He posted them on his Twitter account: “I can’t breathe.”


Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com