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Current, former Clemson football players defend Dabo Swinney
2:18 PM ET
  • David M. HaleESPN Staff Writer

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    • ACC reporter.
    • Joined ESPN in 2012.
    • Graduate of the University of Delaware.

In the wake of several controversies, including a recent acknowledgment of an assistant coach using a racist epithet during practice, Clemson football players have rallied to defend coach Dabo Swinney on social media. And on Thursday, four Tigers who are organizing a protest for racial justice on campus offered more insight into the behind-the-scenes discussions in the program.

Trevor Lawrence, Darien Rencher, Cornell Powell and Mike Jones Jr. spoke about the march they’ve organized at Clemson scheduled for Saturday, but questions inevitably turned to Swinney, who has drawn criticism for not firing assistant Danny Pearman after he used a racial slur during practice in 2017 and for wearing a “Football Matters” T-shirt while posing for a photo at a South Carolina country club last Saturday, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.

“I think we’re all in a position to be educated and learn how to better handle situations,” said Rencher, a senior running back. “That’s everybody. We’re in new territory here and figuring the best way about it.”

In a 14-minute statement issued Monday, Swinney offered explanations about why he didn’t fire Pearman and said the T-shirt was simply an unfortunate coincidence.

Still, Swinney’s comments in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in police custody have been tempered in comparison with his strong take in 2016 that some people kneeling during the national anthem should leave the country.

Rencher suggested Swinney’s own upbringing in Alabama — where his family was poor and, at one point during his college career he was forced to share a room with his mother to make ends meet — may have played into Swinney’s perception of the current Black Lives Matter movement.

“Coach Swinney came from a hard background,” Rencher said. “But at the same time, being black isn’t circumstantial. You don’t choose it. For him to acknowledge that even though you come from a hard place, if you’re black, it’s still harder — that’s something that just to have that conversation, to tune himself in to that reality. We shed tears as a team. For him to say he understands us and that black lives do matter and to rally around us … he’s doing everything he can to educate himself.”

Similarly, former Clemson star Christian Wilkins, whose grandfather was killed by police in what was deemed a “mistake” shooting in 2011, offered more support for Swinney, while acknowledging his former coach hasn’t necessarily said all the right things.

“I see a lot of different things being said about him that I don’t necessarily agree with because I know him personally,” Wilkins, who now plays for the Miami Dolphins, said Thursday. “I know his intentions and I know his heart and I know he’s a great coach, and he’s passionate about developing young men on and off the field.

“Granted, he might not have said all the right things, he might have done some things that people disagree with and that maybe I disagree with. But that just shows where someone like me could really be a help to Coach Swinney too, just as someone who’s close with him and as someone who loves him, continue to help educate him, just have those conversations with him about things going on with him and the media as well.”

Clemson’s seniors met with Swinney to discuss issues of race, including the incident with Pearman, and Rencher called it the most profound meeting of his four years with the Tigers, while Powell said players were emotional in explaining the significance of the moment happening around the world since Floyd’s death.

“It’s good to know that he’s trying to understand certain things that are different between me and him,” said Jones, one of the primary organizers of Saturday’s protest, who has marched at other rallies in recent weeks. “Knowing he wants to understand. He identifies we need change, and he’s asking how we can do change.”

Lawrence was among the first high-profile college players to speak out against racial injustice when he tweeted support for the movement on May 29, and he said he’s taken the time to try to listen to his black teammates, just as Swinney has. That’s what brought him to want to organize Saturday’s march on campus.

“I’ve had a lot to learn and it’s been cool to learn from these guys,” Lawrence said. “I think with Coach Swinney, it’s easy to judge some things he does. But the biggest testament to who he is are the people around him every day and the glowing views we have of the person he is.”

Clemson’s player-led protest is expected to start at 6 p.m. Saturday and run through two miles of campus. This will follow former Clemson stars Deshaun Watson, now with the Houston Texans, and DeAndre Hopkins, with the Arizona Cardinals, making public demands for the school to remove the names of slave owners, particularly John Calhoun, from campus buildings.

On Wednesday, Hopkins defended Swinney in a tweet, writing: “One thing I do know Coach Swinney has never been a racist or had any ill will toward any player. Best coach I’ve ever been around from a football perspective and personal perspective. He helped me become a man and grow from being a kid from Central South Carolina.”

One thing I do know Coach Swinney has never been a racist or had any ill will towards any player. Best coach I’ve ever been around from a football perspective and personal perspective. He helped me become a man and grow from being a kid from Central South Carolina.

— Deandre Hopkins (@DeAndreHopkins) June 10, 2020

Lawrence said he’s aware of some backlash from fans who don’t believe players should be speaking up on political or social issues, but he was quick to negate that argument.

“As humans, we’re entitled to what we believe and what we think is right.” Lawrence said. “Even though what we do is entertainment, the sport we play, we still have values and beliefs, and any human should want to do what’s right when they see something that’s not right.”

ESPN’s Cameron Wolfe contributed to this report.

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