GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Against a backdrop of social unrest and in the middle of a global pandemic, the University of Florida has been doing whatever it can to support its student-athletes. Right now, that has meant being open to listen as hundreds of student-athletes around the country battle various issues.
Over the past few months, student-athletes have spoken out seeking more fair representation with regard to money made off their name, image and likeness. But for Florida basketball player Scottie Lewis, a more pressing and more important issue has taken center stage of late.
Racial injustice, police brutality and the willingness to be able to have open, honest conversations about those topics.
For the time being, he and many other athletes are setting aside their concerns about fair player compensation or anything related to the name, image and likeness battle.
“We’re kind of quieting that battle and focusing on something that’s more on a higher scale,” Lewis said.
Lewis spoke with reporters on a Zoom video conference call on Wednesday, thoughtfully outlining why he has been so vocal in organizing rallies and protests, both in his home community and most recently in Gainesville.
He wanted to be clear about a few points.
“I think my message is extremely universal,” Lewis said. “It’s just simply to spread peace, love and positivity throughout our world.
“A lot of people are saying stuff and transitioning into a political format, simply because it’s what’s trending right now, which is a sad thing, obviously.”
In other words, Lewis’ message goes beyond left or right, Democrat or Republican. It goes beyond the immediate categorization of the social justice movement into any singular thought pattern based on its affiliation with the organization Black Lives Matter or its backing by any particular political candidate.
“I think people are starting to realize that it’s bigger than sports, it’s bigger than one person,” Lewis said. “It’s bigger than a presidential term. It’s bigger than whoever we have in the office.”
Lewis’s message is much the same as the one football coach Dan Mullen has been preaching. America is extremely diverse, and that means people come from often wildly different backgrounds, exposed to wildly different ways of life.
With that come issues that may not be relevant to some groups but very much are for others. For Lewis, the battle he’s fighting even extends beyond just race.
“When you go to protests and you look out to the crowd you see a very diverse group of people all fighting for one thing,” he said. “I guess in retrospect it’s bigger than African Americans. It’s involving the LGBTQ communities, black people, white people, people of color all over the world who have felt less human simply because of what other people say about them.”
Lewis spent a few months away from campus this summer during the COVID-19 shutdown where he really forced himself to think, to learn and to explore various topics. He worked out a little less and tried to focus on ways he could improve things, both in his local community and on a person-to-person basis.
Now, many other athletes are doing the same as various sports teams have held boycotts to raise awareness on the topic du’jour: racial injustice and police brutality.
Lewis understands that puts many sports fans in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar position.
“The world is ran by money, and it’s been a history where the more athletes go out of their fans’ comfort zones and talk about things that pertain to not sports, it makes people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “The fact that we’re taking ourselves out of the player and making people understand that we’re people before we’re players, it was shocking at first. I think for my generation and the generation that’s in the NBA now, I think it’s the first time a multitude of athletes are focusing on one thing and being extremely loud about it.”
Recently, athletes have tried to raise awareness following a string of police brutality incidents that have resulted in the deaths of African-American men, starting with George Floyd and coming to a head most recently with Jacob Blake.
Quite simply, the message that Lewis and many other Black athletes are sharing is that they often feel unfairly targeted by police due to racial profiling.
“The fact that it could have been me and I could be in a different situation if I wasn’t dribbling a basketball, I realized that and I opened my eyes to that,” Lewis said. “People fail to realize it could be any of us.”
Lewis feels so passionately about the issue he said he’s even comfortable risking his own safety for the cause. That’s how important it is to him.
“I understand that me being; the louder I get the more of a target I am, and if I have to potentially lose my life over something I believe in, I put myself into the realm where I’m willing to do that,” Lewis said, getting emotional at various points on the call. “It’s bigger than what I’m going to say or what I’m going to do. It’s bigger than what any of us athletes are going to do. This is a large scale, this is over 400-plus years of history that we’re trying to break down and get people to understand. Most people look at black people and say, ‘He or she is crying for help’ instead of we’re asking to be on a similar playing field.”
So how exactly does Lewis hope to impart change? Because it’s one thing to speak out but it’s another to actually bring about change.
Lewis said he’s had several conversations with teammate Tre Mann, a Gainesville native, about ways they can help improve inner-city conditions in Gainesville and how they might be able to help improve the education process within the community.
The two speak regularly with Valerie Flournoy, a coordinator for student development in the University Athletic Association, about ways they can help out in the local community. That’s where Lewis believes change must start.
“It starts in your home, really. It starts in your home and starts in your community and the school you go to,” he said. “Some people are just in a certain environment where they’re taught to believe a certain thing. They’re taught to view other people in a certain way or certain light.
“You’re not going to be able to reach everyone. What you want to see is what you’re going to see. If you choose to see black people or people of color in a certain light, the world is going to give you what you want to see. If you’re going to be close-minded and say ‘black people do this’ or ‘people of color do this’ and ‘they’re only known for this ,’ you’re only going to see that. It’s a hard task in order to get people to become more open-minded and see that black is beautiful and there’s so much culture behind people that don’t look like you.”
Lewis knows that ultimately his vocal push for change will fall on deaf ears for some. He’s simply hopeful he can help educate the ones who are willing to listen and help work to make America a more equitable place for people of all races.
A place where everyone is treated fairly and not judged on what they look like.
“I’m not going to be the person, or we’re not going to be the generation to end this, even though we would like to be,” Lewis said. “This is something that takes years and years and years, because it’s been going on for so long. How do you change minds, how do you move people, how do you implement certain things that will last a lifetime?
“That’s something that I have come to understand, this is a marathon that’s going to happen and continue after I’m dead. My main focus right now is how can I submit myself into my studies, how can I submit myself into other people and learning from other people and having them learn from me, and set a strong foundation for the people that are going to come after me and fight the same fight?”
For now, that’s using his platform to continue discussing the issue. That’s why Lewis hopped on a Zoom call on Wednesday, spending about half an hour out of his day to have an open and honest dialogue about the topics he’s been fighting passionately about for months now.
Lewis knows he’s in a special place. He has a special platform. And while the NBA looms in the future, eventually likely to offer him an even bigger platform, basketball seems to be taking a bit of a back seat right now for the Florida star. As it is for athletes all over the world.
The Gators are fine with that, from coach Mike White, to athletics director Scott Stricklin, to just about everyone in the organization.
UF’s message: Unity.
“I think what the University of Florida has done for all athletes, not even myself, just opening the door and allowing us to be free and not really making us sugarcoat anything, I think it’s been awesome,” Lewis said. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I did last week without the support of my teammates and my coaching staff, and the entire faculty at the University of Florida, for sure.”
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