Aaron Wiggins was second-guessing a routine activity. The Maryland men’s basketball junior guard was back in Greensboro, North Carolina, in early June after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2019-20 college basketball season and sent him and his teammates home.
While preparing for an early-morning jog in a majority-white neighborhood, the harrowing images from recent weeks and months — viral footage of Black Americans such as George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery being killed — were still fresh in his mind.
Arbery was followed by three white men and gunned down in a South Georgia neighborhood in February 2020. Prosecutors have said Arbery was out jogging when the men charged with his murder chased him. Months later, in Minneapolis, Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
“It was raining outside and I was going to put my hoodie on and go for a jog around 6, 7 a.m.,” Wiggins said in a phone interview, “but the thought ran through my mind: ‘How would I look? Would I scare people running around as a Black man with a hoodie on at 6 a.m.?’ I don’t want to raise any suspicion or have anybody question what I’m doing, even though I’ve lived in that neighborhood for my entire life.”
The high-profile deaths of Floyd and Arbery, along with Breonna Taylor, who was fatally shot in her apartment by Louisville police in March 2020, sent shock waves through the country, and Maryland men’s basketball wasn’t insulated. In the weeks and months to come, the largest nationwide protests since the civil rights movement would emerge.
With coronavirus restrictions keeping Maryland players and coaches separated for the foreseeable future, what started as frequent check-ins turned into sometimes emotional, but necessary, dialogue on the state of affairs in the country.
‘Everybody kind of poured their hearts out’
The Terps saw significant turnover in the offseason. Anthony Cowan Jr. graduated. Jalen Smith departed early for the NBA. And multiple players transferred. A summer period that would usually be a crucial time to get acclimated with several incoming freshmen and transfers — on and off the court — was lost. The team held weekly calls for everyone to stay in touch and give updates on their workouts, but coach Mark Turgeon soon opened the floor for non-basketball talk. The topic of discussion quickly shifted to the current events that were unfolding.
“We’ve been through a lot of stuff, [Freddie Gray] in Baltimore and all the things that have happened with Black lives since I’ve been at Maryland,” the 10th-year coach told The Baltimore Sun before the start of the season, referring to the death of Gray from injuries suffered in police custody in 2015. “But this was at another level.”
The team created a separate forum for its talks on the protests and racial injustice. Assistant coaches and Donnell Jones, the team’s character coach and team chaplain, were also on the call. At the suggestion of Jones, the team began reading “Why We Can’t Wait,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s novel on the nonviolent protests against racial segregation during the Civil Rights Movement.
“Everybody kind of poured their hearts out and had their own thing that they wanted to say about it,” Wiggins said of the first meeting. “I think that really helped us chemistry-wise, to hear each other speak from the heart and feel the perspectives.”
“It was cool to see him take initiative, take a stand and support us,” senior guard Darryl Morsell said.
In the months that followed, the team built off its virtual discussions. In September, it announced every member registered to vote through a player-driven effort and encouraged others to vote in the November general election.
‘They can have a strong voice in their community’
In the wake of nationwide protests, the NCAA and various conferences took steps to empower student-athletes and encourage activism. It was declared that Election Day would be a day off from athletic activity to allow time to vote. The Big Ten Conference launched its Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition, a group of university coaches, student-athletes and leaders who will work to help combat racism and allow student-athletes to express their rights to free speech and peaceful protest. Turgeon is one of the school’s representatives.
Even as the election brought record turnout and shifted the balance of power in the White House and the Senate, efforts to combat racial injustice have continued. The NCAA recently released results from a fall survey of student-athletes, showing widespread interest and engagement in topics related to racial justice.
When images surfaced of a pro-Donald Trump mob breaching the Capitol in early January to contest the results of the election — and the juxtaposition of the police response — players were taken back to their talks of the summer protests.
Morsell was compelled to respond in some way. He spoke to his teammates about kneeling before tipoff of the Terps’ home game against Iowa. His teammates supported the idea. Morsell then reached out to Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon to inform him of the plan and the program was on board. For several seconds after the national anthem played, players, coaches and referees — mirroring the act of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — all dropped to one knee.
“I do think that when my players leave Maryland,” Turgeon said, “because of what we experienced this summer, they can have a strong voice in their community down the road someday, because of the education that we were able to give them and things that we were able to talk about.”