Spring practice was canceled and players aren’t on campus, but head coach Kevin Bullis needed to assemble the UW-Whitewater football team for a meeting Wednesday with an urgent message.

“We have a group of people in our society who are confronted by racism every day,” Bullis said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. “That’s something that a lot of people don’t want to talk about. It’s hard to talk about, but we have to be courageous to start the conversations.

“If there’s one thing we can teach people it is that we need to treat each other right.”

The exigency for the meeting, which took place virtually on Zoom, was the protests gripping the nation sparked by the death of George Floyd, who allegedly was murdered by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder after pressing his knee the neck of a hand-cuffed Floyd for nearly nine minutes.

Chauvin and the three officers on the scene were fired by Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey.

“George Floyd dying was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Bullis said. “It’s been 400 years of racism at varying levels. If we can teach guys empathy, which is something that we work hard to teach anyways, but to use this as an amazingly teachable moment—you shouldn’t pass on it. If we’re going to change it, let’s go, let’s do it. It’s going to have to be one individual at a time.”

For senior offensive lineman Lonnie Chambers, the Wednesday meeting was an opportunity to make sure his teammates were aware of his perspective.

Chambers is an African-American who graduated from St. Laurence High School, a Catholic school in Chicago.

“I learned that throughout anything, those guys have my back,” Chambers said. “Me, as an African-American, I felt like I could spread positivity and also, at the same time, spread awareness about the problems that plague black communities in this country. I really learned that my teammates are willing to be by my side and to listen to what we have to say. I appreciate and commend those guys to be available and to have the courage to have those conversations.”

UW-Whitewater Chancellor Dwight C. Watson, who completed his first full year in the position May 23, released a statement acknowledging the institution’s role in confronting racism.

“While it is true that African-American men are frequently unlawfully detained, the confluence of these two events strikes me as a poignant reminder that our university’s strivings toward equity, inclusion, diversity, and justice make a difference,” the statement said. “UW-Whitewater has been noted as one of the safest campuses in the state, region and country. Our university police have been trained and consult with other university partners to have discussions on how better to serve and protect our campus community. While we know we are not perfect, as an institution we value all of our campus members. As our university’s values highlight, we have a duty of social responsibility. We continue to create and maintain a safe learning, living, and working environment for all identities in our communities.”

Wednesday morning, UW-Whitewater interim athletic director Ryan Callahan issued a statement expressing condolences for the family of Floyd.

“We are heartbroken for all families affected by unfair treatment due to race or ethnicity,” the statement said. “With the support of Chancellor Watson and of our institution, we will continue to collaborate with members of the campus community, Whitewater community and our colleagues on other campuses to learn about these injustices and how we can prevent them from occurring.”

Chambers said the most important lesson to take from the meeting was to challenge oneself to learn about how racism impacts people of color and the black community. He referred to disparities in wealth accumulation and health care.

For context, the average wealth accumulated by a white family in the United States is $171,000 and for a black family is $17,150, according to a study by the Brookings Institute. The study by the Hamilton Project within the Brookings Institute identifies Jim Crow Laws in the South as limiting access to programs like the GI Bill and the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act.

As far as health care is concerned, the most recent example of inequity is the rate at which people of color are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. One in 1,850 black Americans who contracted COVID-19 have died, while 1 in 4,400 white Americans have died.

Bullis called the Warhawks, who were runners up in the NCAA Division III championship game, the most ethnically diverse team in the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Bullis has been head coach of the program for six years.

“As far as individuals involved with Whitewater football, never any racism or comments that are directed toward me in a derogatory way,” Chambers said. “However, I have had racist experiences in my life, so I know what racism looks like and what it feels like. That hasn’t been my case with teammates or coaches. They’ve been supportive of everything I’ve tried to convey.”

Teaching empathy isn’t new, but this moment calls for more direct conversations about race, according to Bullis, who has a 57-9 record in five years as head coach.

“This is a challenge for young people, because people don’t want to talk about uncomfortable things,” Bullis said. “For hatred, sexism, homophobia, those are prejudices in our society and it all comes back to hatred. We have to talk more. It has to be conversations. People can tweet and protest, that’s beautiful to make statements. What it really comes down to is conversations and talking about it.

“Today, talking to the team was the beginning of that lesson.”

Ultimately, a willingness to learn and be empathetic was the biggest message from Bullis.

Chambers appreciated that.

“My overall message is that it doesn’t start and end with police brutality,” Chambers said.

“It’s part of a bigger system that needs to be taken down from top to bottom. I want that to be conveyed and anyone who does not fully understand should challenge themselves and speak with someone who has gone through this experience.”