By R.L. Bynum
With plenty of high expectations surrounding No. 18 North Carolina, Mack Brown could have easily been like many other football coaches who barely recognize anything outside of their football bubble.
Before he made a video supporting Black Lives Matter, even his players told him that it was going to upset some people. In a turbulent 2020, with nearly everything viewed through a political prism, he knew what some of the reactions might be.
That didn’t matter to him after he heard from his players and fellow coaches about the racism they all had endured.
“We have to be very careful that anything outside of football doesn’t disrupt our team,” Brown said. “But I felt very strongly about this cause. Some people think it’s political. I haven’t got a political bone in my body. It’s what’s right. I’m building the program on being fair and being consistent and doing what’s right. That’s all I’m asking. I’m asking everybody that feels differently to stop, take a deep breath and listen and try to learn from it and see if you would feel comfortable if that was your son.”
Brown knew that he had no idea how it felt to be Black and no clue what Black people deal with daily. So he had conversations with his Black assistant coaches and Black players to find out about that and figure out the proper message he should deliver publicly.
“These are guys that work together and they’re very comfortable with each other, and it was not the most comfortable conversation,” said Brown, who discussed it for 90 minutes with his staff. “A lot of things were brought up that were sensitive and hard. And I just felt like I needed to ask all of them to help me because I haven’t been the victim of racism. Help me represent them and help me say what they would like to say because of the voice that I have.”
Brown says it was painful to hear that some were afraid to get in their car and some parents are afraid for their sons to get into cars. Or some were afraid to go for runs.
“That’s why we need to make sure that we listen and learn,” Brown said. “And I’ve learned so much from these guys, these players, about what they put up with in their lives. And our bubble, again, is safe. And it’s a cool environment where we laugh and cut up with each other and we don’t see race.
“And I’ve thought what an awful time in 2020 that we’re still talking about how somebody looks. And we’re better than that and we’re smarter than that,” he said. “And I felt like it was time for me to say that for our team. After the fact, I’m so glad that it represented our team and staff, and that they had so much input into it. And it was my words that wanted to say what they felt, and I feel the same way, obviously. I wouldn’t have said it unless I felt the same way.”
Brown also got some criticism when he said that, from a football perspective, it was better for his program during a pandemic with many students leaving campus. Some said his comments were against education, which he said wasn’t the case at all.
Brown said that, at UNC, they’ve tried to pattern themselves after the NBA bubble as much as possible. Fewer people on campus makes that easier. When there were in-person classes, the word he got from players is that going to class was safe. It was activity outside of class that was problematic. Anything that is of higher risk, such as inside gatherings, is to be avoided..
“What we’ve seen is that football has not caused the virus,” Brown said. “Because we haven’t had any positives out of football. It’s what you do outside of the bubble that affects you.”
Brown has preached wearing masks, staying away from people who don’t wear them and constantly hand-washing.
“We basically just told the players if you want to play, then go by the guidelines,” Brown said. “If you don’t care, go to your parties and have your social life but you’re not going to play. And that’s very simple and it’s not going to be the norm. It’s not going to be the same. I don’t go out of my house much. I come to the office around you guys, I go back and Sally and I are staying in a bubble as well so we’re all trying to make this thing work. And as of now, it is working.”
UNC opens against Syracuse at noon on Sept. 12 at Kenan Stadium without fans in the stands.