These Will Be the Faces of Social Justice in Men’s College Basketball

Over the past few months, we’ve watched as professional sports have moved to the forefront of national discussions about social justice. From powerful protests in the WNBA and NBA, to kneeling players and canceled games in the MLB, to a brief strike and subsequent statements by U.S. Open champions tennis star Naomi Osaka, there have been a lot of fascinating examples. Along the way, it’s been interesting to wonder how college sports might take the baton. In particular, we’ve wondered about men’s college basketball, where players have such an enormous spotlight — and where they already idolize the same NBA players who drove so much of this conversation in recent months.

Unfortunately, a number of the most prominent players in college basketball who are known to be passionate about the topic of social justice are already on their way to the pro ranks. Syracuse standout Elijah Hughes, who led the ACC in scoring, was seen protesting following the killing of George Floyd. Duke star and ACC Player of the Year Tre Jones was likewise out marching during the height of the summer protests. And Tyrese Haliburton, an Iowa State guard projected by Bwin to be among the top picks in the upcoming NBA Draft, was vocal in his support for demonstrations in his hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. People like these young men would undoubtedly have done the NCAA proud in the upcoming season, but will instead be moving on to the NBA.

That said, there are already some fresh faces and voices emerging to carry the torch. Indeed, we wouldn’t be surprised to see a handful of players on almost every team being vocal about the social justice movement athletes more broadly are helping to keep alive. But as far as we can tell, the following are some of the players to watch in this regard:

Kellan Grady – Davidson

A couple of seasons ago, Kellan Grady was a breakout star as a freshman at Davidson. His college career since then has been somewhat hampered by injuries but heading into the 2020-21 season, he projects to be one of the top players in the Atlantic-10 Conference. In the meantime though, Grady has already established himself as one of the leading voices in college basketball on social and racial justice.

The grandson of a woman who helped to lead marches against Apartheid in South Africa, Grady appears to have been naturally drawn to lead amidst ongoing violence and discrimination against Black Americans. Following his own troubling encounter with racist aggravators near Davidson’s campus, Grady launched his own platform, called CARE (College Athletes for Respect and Equality). The platform’s primary aim is to educate young children on racial injustice. But it’s a safe bet that Grady will also be vocal and active with regard to the events of the day throughout his upcoming season.

Henry Coleman – Duke

Arguably more than any other school, Duke has made headlines in recent months for taking the lead on social justice. Renowned head coach Mike Krzyzewski stirred the college sports world with his own “black lives matter” video — something that was long overdue from college sports in general, but nevertheless effective enough to earn praise even from legions of self-styled “Duke haters.” And recently, the school made the decision to speak to the racial justice movement via its jerseys. Per Sports Illustrated, Duke will wear “Equality” this coming season. This is merely a gesture, of course, but it still represents a premier program setting the right tone.

Amidst all of this though, it’s Henry Coleman — one of Duke’s incoming freshmen — who has emerged as the face of the team (alongside rising sophomore Wendell Moore, who has been active in protests). During a peaceful, on-campus protest organized by the coaching staff, Coleman stepped up to the microphone and delivered a raw, powerful speech to his fellow Duke athletes — discussing his experience with racism and what has to change moving forward. It was a rare offseason college basketball moment that drove a significant amount of media coverage, and it positioned Coleman to be a leader moving forward.

Makur Maker – Howard

In some ways, Makur Maker has already made as big a statement as he ever could have during what may well be his lone college season. A talented high school star and professional prospect (and the cousin of NBA player Thon Maker), Maker had his choice of major college programs. UCLA, Memphis, and Kentucky in particular recruited him closely. But in the end, Maker shocked the college basketball world by choosing instead to attend Howard University — an HBCU in Washington, D.C.

Though a very well known and well-regarded university, Howard is not an athletic powerhouse on par with the programs that typically appeal to players of Maker’s caliber. His decision, however, went beyond basketball. Maker committed to Howard over the summer at the peak of the social justice movements, and even as some conversations were starting regarding the idea of Black athletes giving more consideration to HBCUs. In suiting up for Howard, Maker hopes to draw more attention to these historic institutions, and possibly give Black amateur athletes a bigger voice in the process.

Kolton Mitchell – Massachusetts

Massachusetts doesn’t quite garner the attention it once did in the college basketball ranks. But if you were to do some searching on the internet for college basketball activity in social justice movements, UMass and Kolton Mitchell would be among the top results you’d find.

This is because Mitchell — a sophomore guard who figures to have a fairly prominent role for the Minutemen this season — took it upon himself to make a video sharing his thoughts on the plight of Black men and women in America today. Daily Hampshire Gazette carried the video, in which Mitchell described nightmares that one day, his name would be read on television like those of so many victims we’ve seen. The video, titled “I’ve Had Enough” and produced by Mitchell and his teammates — was one of the most powerful statements we’ve seen from an athlete in the college ranks.

There will of course be more names than these, and it is not the responsibility of any individual athlete to keep a movement alive. But expect to hear more about these exceptional young men as college basketball moves into the spotlight this winter.

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