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‘We are trying to really grow’: Why BYU coach Mark Pope has made addressing social issues with his team such a priority

Pope invited various speakers, including former Cougar Yoeli Childs, to lead discussions about uncomfortable topics in attempt to learn and do more to help others.

BYU introduces Mark Pope as its new men’s basketball head coach at a press conference at the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
BYU introduces Mark Pope as its new men’s basketball head coach at a press conference at the BYU Broadcast Building in Provo on Wednesday, April 10, 2019.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

PROVO — As protests sprung up throughout the country over the summer following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and after one of his former players, Yoeli Childs, shared a poignant, personal message about social injustice on social media, BYU coach Mark Pope realized this was an issue that he, and his players, needed to learn more about.

“Clearly, as everything came to a crescendo, it was something that was really important for us to address as a team,” he said. “I was originally really interested in making sure that my guys were smart about their activities and stayed safe while they were letting their voice be heard however they wanted to.”

As close as he had become with Childs, who finished his Cougar career as the first player in BYU history to record more than 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, Pope realized there was a side of Childs’ life journey he hadn’t known.

Pope wanted to find out more from Childs, and others, on the topics of social justice and racism.

At the same time, the coach, who is entering his second season at the helm, wanted his players and staff to delve deeper into this significant topic and be able to express their own feelings and experiences.

So during the summer, Pope set up various team meetings, via Zoom, with the aim of listening — and learning.

“We set out as a team on kind of a commitment to each other that we would genuinely be introspective and really try to listen and see if we could grow by hearing all of the voices around and all of the actions around, and not just taking them at face value but trying to understand where they came from and where they are driven,” Pope said. “We talked about that a lot, multiple times a week. We started doing team Zoom calls and discussions where guys were really open with one another about their feelings. Guys were generous in our interpretation of what everybody said with the idea that we were all trying to learn.”

Guest speakers were “some of the courageous civil rights leaders of our generation,” Pope said.

Among those that he invited to address his team were Pastor Derwin Gray, a former BYU football player, and the Rev. France A. Davis of the Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City. Davis retired in 2019 after spending decades fighting for the rights of Black people in Utah.

Childs also led a candid, and sometimes unsettling, conversation with BYU players, some of whom were his former teammates.

“The culture here is incredible. There are so many great human beings and I was so blessed to play with them. I wish I could play with that same group forever. It was great to talk to them and have an open and honest conversation about uncomfortable issues,” Childs said. “Guys were able to speak up. They mentioned things like, ‘When I first heard the term “white privilege,” I was ticked off.’ We were able to have open conversations about stuff like that.

“Rightfully so, it’s not a fun thing to hear. But we were able to dive into what words mean. We talked about what ignorance means,” Childs continued. “That’s a big thing that I’ve been talking about lately. When we say ignorance, we give certain words power that they don’t necessarily have. If I say, ‘You’re ignorant,’ it sounds like I’m calling you ‘stupid.’ But in actuality, it just means that you don’t know about this subject because it hasn’t been in your lives. It’s been cool to have these conversations that are so genuine. We all know we’re coming from a good place. It really is a brotherhood and I’m grateful for those guys.”

Brigham Young Cougars forward Kolby Lee (40), Brigham Young Cougars forward Yoeli Childs (23) and Brigham Young Cougars guard TJ Haws (30) sit on the bench as Utah and BYU play an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Utah won 102-95 in overtime.
Left to right: BYU’s Kolby Lee, Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws sit on the bench as Utah and BYU play an NCAA basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. Utah won 102-95 in overtime. Childs has been a voice for racial justice in 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Pope is hoping those discussions have spurred in his team a desire to be more aware and to do more to help those around them.

“It was a pretty interesting dynamic and pretty telling for all of us,” he said. “We’ve done some team readings, trying to see if we could broaden our understanding. I think my guys had an overwhelming feeling of wanting to do something constructive and find ways that we can make a positive impact on this community and the social issues at hand.

“With each of these people, we’ve had those kinds of discussions. We’re still excited about learning and trying to find ways to do a little bit better individually and as a team for our community.”

The coaching staff spent time evaluating their own perspectives by taking Harvard’s Implicit Association Bias tests online.

“We are trying to really grow as individuals so we can do better. I think my team feels like that in general,” Pope said. “I think our guys feel like that if nothing else comes out of it, at the very bare minimum, we should come out of this as better human beings and more understanding and more cognizant of what our brothers are going through. Hopefully, we’re making progress as individuals, and a team, and a university, and a community and a country. That’s what has to come out of this.”