James Franklin not afraid to make people 'uncomfortable' with social justice messaging

Centre Daily Times (TNS)
Penn State head football coach James Franklin.

In his seventh year at Penn State, James Franklin isn’t afraid to make people uncomfortable.

While he recognized the decision might not be popular with all the Nittany Lion faithful, Franklin confirmed Wednesday during Day 1 of Penn State’s virtual media days that his team will take advantage of the NCAA’s July ruling that allows players to wear patches on their uniforms to support social justice causes.

“I think for there to be any growth, and I think for there to be any change, there’s an aspect of it that’s education and there’s an aspect of it that is about making people a little bit uncomfortable,” Franklin told reporters on a Zoom conference call. “We talk about it all the time in our program, that for you to truly grow, you have to break outside of your normal routines. And typically when you’re uncomfortable is when you’re growing the most.”

Throughout a year that has shined a spotlight on social injustice in America, Franklin hasn’t shied away from being vocal. He feels a responsibility to use his platform as the first Black head coach in Penn State history.

After George Floyd — a 46-year-old Black man — was murdered by a Minneapolis police offer in May, Franklin said in a statement that “in moments like this, silence is deafening indifference.” Franklin believes these types of tragedies provide an opportunity for discourse in his program and throughout the country.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity there for growth,” Franklin said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity there for discussions, deep conversations with your team and with your staff and with your neighbors and with your family. There’s tremendous opportunities. And the reality is the thing that we’re all gonna have to find a way to deal with the rest of our lives is adversity and challenges. And we had a lot of it. This 2020’s been interesting. There’s been a lot of challenges, a lot of adversity.”

Before Floyd’s death, the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in early May by police in Louisville, Kentucky, serving a no-knock warrant to the wrong address and the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in February by two white men in Brunswick, Georgia, caused public outrage.

Proud of his players: A handful of Nittany Lions players have posted on social media in recent months to speak out against police brutality and other racial injustices. Franklin said he supports his players expressing themselves in that way.

“I’ve been proud of our people,” he said. “I’ve been proud of our players; I’ve been proud of our staff. I’ve been proud of our players being vocal about things that are important to them.”

Franklin also feels that the amount of diversity on his coaching staff has allowed his players to have more individuals within the program that they can relate to, and that’s something he takes pride in. Including Franklin, six of Penn State’s 11 coaches and coordinators are Black.

“When you’ve got a football team of 125 young men from all different backgrounds and all different perspectives, diversity is really important,” Franklin said. “Because I need to make sure that all 120, 125 guys on that team have someone that they’re comfortable with and can connect with about a variety of topics and about a variety of subjects.”

Plan in discussion: Penn State hasn’t laid out the details yet for how it will exercise its right to raise awareness for social injustices on the field this fall, but Franklin said a plan is “in discussion right now.”

Just like in other instances where he or other members of his program have spoken out, Franklin knows not everyone will understand. And he’s OK with that.

“It’s never easy to make everybody comfortable with the process,” Franklin said. “But I think as long as we’re thoughtful and we have a process and we understand and we’re intentional, then I hope everybody will respect that.”

New tradition: Penn State football announced in a video Wednesday that it is starting a new tradition. In a video posted on Twitter, the program said it will reward a leader on special teams with the jersey No. 0.

An NCAA rule approved in April made No. 0 available to college football players for the first time this season. The rule was implemented to cut down the number of players on a team with the same jersey number.

“This season, we embark on a new tradition,” the video stated. “One of us is going to earn the right to represent our special teams with a new number: zero. The individual wearing zero represents all of us and drives our culture. He is a tough, dependable, disciplined, physical leader who inspires teammates with his accountability and production. Ultimately, he is a game-changer.”

Earlier Wednesday, Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman said he’d wear No. 0 this season to represent “zero tolerance for racism,” after the Golden Gophers announced the NCAA had cleared him to return after he previously opted out of the season.

Now, the Nittany Lions have also found a way to give the newly available jersey number some significance.