Brian Tompkins on athletes fighting for social justice: 'I have more than hope. I have expectations'

Brian Tompkins  has been called the N-word on the soccer field. He knows what it’s like to be the only Black player in a locker room. He’s seethed with anger, but held his tongue. Sometimes he has quietly admonished his tormentors.

As a highly regarded soccer coach – first at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, then at Yale University – the London-born Tompkins has been a trailblazer and a role model. But, he says, it should not be his job to educate fellow coaches and athletes about race in America.

A coach can create “a culture of respect” on his team, one that ensures all players are embraced regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. But the hard work of developing awareness, sensitivity and empathy must be done by everyone.

A white coach with one Black athlete once told Tompkins, “I don’t understand white privilege.” “Every day he walks in the locker room, he’s aware that he’s a Black player,” Tompkins explained. “He doesn’t have the advantage to not think about it.” Conversely, most white players do not even realize what it means to not think about being in the majority. That enables them to follow a racist joke or derogatory statement with the side comment Tompkins has occasionally heard: “Oh, I don’t think of you as Black.”

For 400 years, this country has not really confronted, or even talked about, the systemic racism baked into its history. “People were stolen from Africa, and treated worse than animals,” he says bluntly. But now, Tompkins says, Americans are initiating those discussions. He is encouraged to see young people – including athletes – leading the way.

At the international level, teams are walking off the field when a teammate is taunted. MLS players are speaking out against racism and in favor of Black Lives Matter. But words are not enough. Tompkins says that “gestures” must be turned into meaningful action.

Tompkins, who in February wrote an article for Psychology Today headlined "Racism Is Alive and Well in Soccer," is not the only one hoping for next steps. In the aftermath of protests over the killing of George Floyd and other Black people, Tompkins – who retired as Yale’s head coach in 2015, and served as the school’s senior associate athletic director through 2019 – was asked to moderate conversations on race for several Ivy League teams, and those at other universities. He was encouraged by those athletes’ engagement and responsiveness.

“Their sensitivity and desire to do something more is phenomenal,” he says. “They want to get to the heart of this. I have more than hope. I have expectations.”

Teams – and not just at the college level “want to be inclusive,” Tompkins believes. Athletes in their 20s have grown up in a society different from those he and his generation knew. He is heartened that as soon as Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen faced allegations of racism, players demanded action. Within days, the owner announced he would sell the team.

Of course, Tompkins warns, “we’re still in the very early stages. It may be five or 10 years before we see noticeable changes. Social justice takes time, numbers and dedication. We’ve seen the first dominoes start to fall. But it will be a while until redlining stops, gerrymandering ends, poor schools get funded, and more Black people are in leadership positions.” In sports terms, that means “Blacks as CEOs and general managers of sports teams, not just in sales and marketing.”

Sometimes, the work against systemic racism can seem overwhelming, Tompkins admits. No one can do everything. But everyone can do something.

“If there are lots of fires burning, put out the one closest to your house. That’s the one that will burn you first,” he advises. Again, he puts the burden not on Black players and coaches, but white ones. “How can you be more anti-racist?” he asks. “Educate yourself about Black history and culture. Look around at your environment. See what you can do, then do it.”

Some days, he feels disheartened. Other days, he sees young people – Black and white and every color in between -- and feels energized. “They’re motivated. They recognize their strength and power. I’m on fire inside, and I see they’re on fire too.”

11 comments about "Brian Tompkins on athletes fighting for social justice: 'I have more than hope. I have expectations'".
  1. R2 Dad, September 2, 2020 at 6:42 a.m.

    If this coach has expectations he will surely be let down for "social justice" is a nebulous concept that will not deliver on any goals. "Awareness, sensitivity and empathy " are not policies, are impossible to measure and thus can never be improved enough to one day claim victory over oppression or whatever character flaw in man people disapprove of. Social justice just means perpetual divisiveness.

  2. Kent James replied, September 2, 2020 at 4:10 p.m.

    You can't measure social justice?  You can certainly measure aspects of it, like measuring racial representation in jobs, arrests, spending on school, healthcare, etc..  Pointing out social injustice may be divisive, but it's not as divisive as the social injustice itself, and the only way to begin to correct it.  Though it may be hard, and there will be disappointments on the way, working to create a just world is the only way we'll ever get close to that goal.  I admire Tompkins efforts to look beyond just the players on the field and do what he can to make the world a better place.  

  3. R2 Dad replied, September 2, 2020 at 8:31 p.m.

    Kent, the problem with your arguement is your implied assertion that social justice=racial injustice=racial inequality. The fact that "yellow" and "brown" minorities (which combined form a majority in my city) don't experience these same type of events tells me it's specific to the black community and not to minorities in general. Which would mean systemic raciscm is not systemic but conditional. Of course, that doesn't fit existing political narratives, but my blue city is not in flames, either.

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, September 3, 2020 at 2:01 a.m.

    R2 Dad, I cannot make any sense at all out of what you just said.

    Being a veteran moving between military and non-military communities in the mid to late 1970s and again in the 1980s gave me perspective on how different a desegregated community is from what is normal in the US. I suspect that the contrast in the communities may not be as great for minorities, but I am sure they see a difference moving between civilian and military communities.

    I am not saying that military communities of that time were some kind of utopia. When individuals bury racial prejudice, it still exists below the surface. There was also rampant gender discrimination. For men, however, there was in practice equal opportunity and overt discrimination was not tolerated. 

    In my view the success of the 1948 desegregation of the military is evident in imperfect social justice in the military generations later. Eisenhower thought strategically in the long term. That is not how most Western leaders think. I am not going to reject imperfect social justice any more than I would reject imperfect democracy or imperfect freedom. I don't expect or need perfection in our world, although it is good to reach for high goals.    

  5. Kent James replied, September 3, 2020 at 3:24 p.m.

    R2 Dad, systemic racism does not mean that all minorities are discriminated against equally.  If any racial group suffers discrimination, there is racism.  Systemic racism means that it's not just individuals with racist views who are responsible for the racial injustice.  Take policing, for example.  Because police have a higher presence in minority neighborhoods, more minority kids get arrested and prosecuted for doing the exact same things white kids do in their neighborhoods, but the white kids don't get a police record.   Now the minority kid has a police record, may have more trouble finding a job, etc.  And that doesn't even require individual police officers to be racist.  

    Solutions are not easy, but it's important that we all do what we can.  The arc of the universe is long, and bends towards justice, but that does depend on us trying to make it bend...

  6. John Foust, September 2, 2020 at 11:45 a.m.

    A thoughtful man.  The issue will be eternally elusive as long as we think we can change human nature through human effort alone.  This is fundamentally a spritual issue, and dealing with solely on the earthly plane will never work.  Racial injustice has existed thoughout the entirety of human history, in ny opinion (humble or not), and except for one man, Jesus Christ, no one else has ever had a solution. The Sermon on the Mount may be the most compelling guidance on human relations, yet all of us - me leading the pack - far short.  But that's the goal.  Laws won't work.  Corporate re-educatino camps won't work.  Inviting someone from another racial background to dinner once won't work.  It's all about our attitude towrad relationships, and until we love some one else with our heart, and tell them to their face that we love them, we'll be forever frustrated at the lack of progress.  My two cents ...

  7. Kevin Sims, September 2, 2020 at 1:46 p.m.

    Had the pleasure of being on a coaching course with Mr. Tompkins. Sharp man. Mechanisms to make this world a better place may be found in subjective efforts as well as objective targets and measures. 

    Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

    Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.

  8. James Madison, September 2, 2020 at 3:11 p.m.

    "It may be 5 or 10 years before we see noticeable changes." That sounds a lot like what I heard when I first marched in 1962.

  9. frank schoon, September 2, 2020 at 3:13 p.m.

     Drop the SJW and all the other wasteful 'feel good' programs.....

    IF you want to change the world ,begin with yourself.....Also, treat people like  the way you would like to be treated....The rest is all BS ,it's that simple.....

  10. Bob Ashpole, September 2, 2020 at 6:40 p.m.

    If everyone were a pessimist, nothing would be accomplished.

  11. uffe gustafsson, September 2, 2020 at 8:35 p.m.

    This is not just an issue of USA but a global issue.
    whatever you think of BLM it has started a global discussion that includes every color we have.
    to me that's a good start espicially in the soccer community. We have seen the treatment of especially African player having bananas and monkey call thrown at them in many countries. So clearly we not alone in that behaviors of treating black players badly and our black citizens. Only when we USA get socio economic issues better handled we will have issues.
    though I do have to say today's youth are much less racially divided then our generation and that's a good step forward. 

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