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Boston College, South Florida cancel football practice for social injustice discussion

Boston College and South Florida on Thursday became the first college football teams to cancel preseason practice to participate in the national discussion about social injustice.

Mississippi State, Kentucky, Baylor and Western Kentucky have followed, with the Wildcats leaving the practice field Thursday for what they said was a meeting of the team's unity council to discuss the social issues that have galvanized athletes across the country.

Mississippi State never took the field, a source told ESPN's Alex Scarborough.

Bulldogs running back Kylin Hill, who led the successful movement to get the Confederate flag removed from Mississippi's state flag, tweeted about his team's decision not to practice Thursday.

Instead, the majority of the team went to Unity Park in downtown Starkville, which honors heroes of the Civil Rights movement. There the Bulldogs took a photo of the team, some with fists raised, against a backdrop of plaques commemorating Civil Rights activists Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers and others.

Hill tweeted the photo Thursday night, saying the team is unified, even though he knows its unity will draw hatred from some.

First-year Mississippi State Mike Leach tweeted his support of the meeting.

In a statement, Baylor said its players decided as a team to forgo practice to have "an open conversation about how to come together as one to unite against social injustice," in addition to discussing practical ways to support teammates who are hurting. After the meeting, the team marched from the athletic complex to Fountain Mall in the heart of the campus in Waco, Texas, to pray.

Boston College coaches and players met and discussed recent events and how they can help unite communities and create positive change. South Florida, which also is awaiting the results of its latest COVID-19 testing, met briefly as a team Thursday morning.

At Western Kentucky, coach Tyson Helton said he called off practice after meeting with players and coaches to discuss current events.

Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times by police Sunday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as he attempted to enter the driver's side door of his vehicle. Video of the shooting was distributed on social media, sparking more protests and causing more athletes to speak out or take action.

"The events in Kenosha once again lay bare a tragic outcome resulting from police interaction with a person of color," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement Thursday. "It has also once again brought to the forefront the issues of race, social justice and social responsibility that we all need to commit to.

"Peaceful protest is a powerful tool to drive social change and we fully support student-athletes' rights to be heard. Action also drives change and we urge all student-athletes to exercise their right and responsibility to vote this November 3 to build a better and more inclusive America."

First-year USF coach Jeff Scott also met with a smaller group of player leaders.

"These are real-life situations that are going on," Scott told reporters, becoming emotional. "As a coach, you always take pride in being able to fix things for your players, like a coach or a dad. You want to fix whatever the problem is.

"This is one of those situations where you can't fix it for your players. So part of it is just for your guys to know that you love them, that you're there to support them and that you stand with them."

First-year Boston College coach Jeff Hafley said several players and coaches spoke at an "emotional" team meeting Thursday morning.

"We have a great group of people, we have a group of people who are hurting, and we have coaches who are hurting," Hafley said. "We had some really great conversations today because things do need to change. There's too much hate, and there needs to be more love, and it's sad. I'm very, very proud of our football team and our coaching staff today."

USF senior cornerback KJ Sails, who organized a unity walk in Tampa in June after George Floyd's death, told ESPN in a phone interview it was heartbreaking to repeatedly relive the same trauma.

"I sound like a broken record when I say it's getting to the point where this is now a condition and this condition does not have a cure," Sails said. "In order to get this condition right, we have to find the root of the problem and we have to address that root because if it's not addressed, it will keep happening over, and over and over again. There's too many people [who] say they don't understand but honestly does it take for somebody to lose a life to feel, 'Oh wow, this is heartbreaking.' No, no, no, it shouldn't have to take for someone to lose a life. It's going to keep happening if we don't put a stop to it and I want to challenge the white community to take a stand. Be brave. Stand for us because we need everyone.

"I have a son of my own and to watch that video ... it's not normal to watch someone get killed on video. We have normalized people getting killed on video and that's sickening. We've become immune to it and it's very sickening and traumatizing. I want to thank USF for taking a stand and just standing with us, and by us I mean us Black student-athletes because yes, it is a very different experience and our university has done a tremendous job of standing behind us, standing with us, walking with us, whatever we need they have done a tremendous job of comforting us."

Kentucky offensive tackle Luke Fortner showed up prepared for practice, but quickly realized there were more important matters to discuss when seeing how recent events had affected some of his teammates.

"If you know [linebacker Jamar] "Boogie" Watson, you know how laid back he is. And ... you know when he's visibly upset, or [junior defensive end] Josh Paschal is visibly upset, you know there's an issue. And so I showed up to the facility thinking I'd practice. When I saw that, I knew that we had to do something else."

That led to the meeting of the unity council, which Paschal said is made up of leaders from throughout the team.

"This isn't an issue for just our Black teammates. It's an issue that involves all of our players, and should involve all of our fans [and the] community," Fortner said. "We realize that as athletes, we have a platform. We've decided as a team, [we'll] use this platform for positive change. And what does this mean? It means that we're not just going to tweet a hashtag. We plan on continuing our volunteer service, but with an emphasis on youth minorities in the community. We plan an opening dialogue with Lexington police and inviting an open conversation. We plan on making this a consistent effort, not something that dies down in just a week."

Fortner, who is white, said it's incredibly important for the team's white players to support the Black players on the roster.

"What I highlighted at the beginning [of the meeting] is that this is a human issue, right? And so when Josh says that, 'I need help,' to all of his white teammates, if his white teammates are there to back him up, we can automatically begin to make a change in our community and reach out to everyone in the community regardless of what color they are. And so I think it's almost the most important part that we stand with Josh and the rest of our Black teammates in this issue."

Paschal said coach Mark Stoops supports the players and their decision to meet instead of practice on Thursday.

"Coach Stoops, he's always been for us. And that's something that we all love, and we appreciate that. And we were in a players-only meeting, and he actually accidentally opened the door, but we were all welcoming him in.

"Then, he started to listen to us. And he told us straight up, he said, 'Whatever you guys decide to do I will stand for you guys.' He knows that it's an issue. He knows that there's things that need to be talked about and there's actions that need to be made, and that he was willing to stand with us and fight for us no matter what we decided, if we decided to practice or if we decided to just talk about the issue and focus on that today."

Paschal said not practicing is a one-day happening, "but this is not a one-day deal of Coach Stoops listening to us. Coach Stoops listens to us all the time. He's willing to hear us out and empathize with us. I feel like that's what we all need right now. We all need someone to empathize with us, who understands, who will be willing to learn and educate themselves."

Information from ESPN's Sam Khan Jr. was used in this report.