Saturday afternoon, Jim McElwain verbally abused Kelvin Taylor.
Upon running into the end zone, the junior tailback gestured with his left hand across his throat, implying that he slit the throat of his opponents. Taylor is the son of the underappreciated Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, and the gesture is one that his father performed many times. Apparently, it had been a problem before since McElwain mentioned having had to scold the Florida Gator junior about the gesture during practice.
Without question, it was unwise of Taylor to do so, especially since he knew he would be hit with a personal foul penalty, but what came after was vicious. Jim McElwain, the head coach of the Florida Gators football team, proceeded to berate Taylor on national television.
He asked him, “What the f*ck are you doing?" And told him, “Don’t look down; look at me. F*cking be a man.” Further, just when he was about to walk off, the coach came back with a backhand gesture and cursed him out a bit more. As this happened, the players looked on seemingly horrified by what they were seeing.
To be sure, football is not a sport for the faint of heart. I was thoroughly cursed out many times for not playing to the best of my ability during my glory days in high school. Also, there was a need for McElwain to grab the attention of Taylor for selfishly placing his team in a precarious position. Further, Florida has been the most penalized team in the SEC over the past few years, so I understand the need for the coaching staff to tackle insubordination head on.
I understand all these things, but McElwain handled this all wrong for three primary reasons.
This incident happened on a sideline in front of 50,000 people. Indeed, there are many things to be distracted by during a football game, but that does not take away from the fact that this was in full view of everyone there. Further, there were possibly millions of people watching the game across the nation. It is one thing to make an example of a player in front of his teammates in the locker room; it is something else entirely to do so in front of the whole world.
Yes, what Taylor did was unwise, but he is a junior in college. Who among us has not done foolish things while young? McElwain is an adult and, allegedly, a leader. His reaction was unacceptable.
Challenging the manhood of Taylor on national television by telling him to “F*cking be a man” is demeaning, demoralizing and dehumanizing. Fred Taylor agrees:
"I don't think he should test his manhood. I think it was a little bit extensive, a little bit much. They'll figure it out. Either my son is going to fall to it, or he's going to use it as motivation, as I told him, and go out and play some real ball."
The better option was to bench Taylor for the rest of the game and address the concern in private. By addressing it in such a public setting, McElwain crossed the line.
Perhaps you make the argument that he just lost his cool. Indeed, we all do, but he is paid millions of dollars to make sure he keeps the respect of his players. The look on the faces of the Gators communicated that they thought he was losing it a bit. McElwain cannot scold a player for behaving impulsively and then proceed to be impetuous in his reaction. He is supposed to be a professional who is constantly aware of the media and the way things look. He lost sight of that because here is what I saw: a (white) man paid millions of dollars berating a (black) player over whom he has an astonishing amount of power. (I’ll get to what is in the parenthesis in a moment.)
McElwain is paid $3.5 million to be the head football coach of the Florida Gators. The total buyout paid to Colorado State University by both McElwain and Florida so he could take his talents to Gainesville, Florida, was $7 million. He is incredibly well-compensated for what he does. He also has the ability to decide who plays and who does not, who has a scholarship renewed, and who is let go. He is a very powerful man.
Taylor has … a scholarship.
The power imbalance is incredible. There are horrific stories of players being hit with basketballs by Mike Rice at Rutgers or being forced by Mark Mangino to do “bear crawls” in record-degree heat in Kansas. If McElwain is willing to berate his players like this publicly, it begs the question of what is happening behind closed doors.
Of course, no one is alleging that this is happening, but when we see a scene like we did Saturday, all this comes to mind. McElwain must be cognizant of that, and if he does not care, then Florida hired the wrong head coach.
Saturday afternoon a powerful white man verbally abused a black man. Plain and simple.
I am not calling him a racist. I am not making a claim that he talks to his white players with less vitriol when they make a mistake, but the fact remains that we have white men in our country with incredible power killing unarmed black men and women under suspicious circumstances. In light of America’s current human rights crisis and the malicious history of white men regarding black life and humanity callously, the optics could not be worse.
The whole scene made me uncomfortable. It brought to mind images of black men being treated as subhuman by men on plantations. It reminded me of adult black men being called boy during the Jim Crow Era in the South. It reminded me of black men carrying signs with the words “I AM A MAN” declaring their humanity in the face of a system that sought to deny their personhood. It brought all those images to mind, and that could have been curtailed by professionalism on the part of the head coach.
Of course, players came to the defense of coach McElwain. Even Kelvin Taylor tweeted, “I love coach Mac!!! He's going make me a better person Got nothing, but respect for him!”
Nevertheless, the fact remains that a head coach should know better. This was the wrong way to handle this situation. He better make things right with his players soon.
Lawrence Ware is a philosopher of race at his day job and a curator of dopeness when time allows. Words in The New York Times, Slate Magazine, The Root and others. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the kind of Steelers fan that enjoys watching the Cowboys lose.