EDINBURG — In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and amid nationwide protests against police brutality, UTRGV men’s head basketball coach Lew Hill raised his voice locally to call for meaningful and lasting change, and to open a dialogue on race relations.

Chasse Conque, the athletic director of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’ athletic department pictured in Edinburg Aug 27, 2019, believes sports can bring back a sense of normalcy. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Now, Hill, UTRGV Vice President and Athletic Director Chasse Conque and university president Dr. Guy Bailey are coming together with coaches and student leaders to develop a department-wide plan and initiate campus conversations.

“It’s something that we have obviously been talking about the last couple of weeks, and I do want to thank coach (Lew) Hill. He has been just an unbelievable leader and unbelievable colleague as we have these discussions,” Conque said. “Coach Hill and I met with our student advisory committee, our student ethic advisory committee president and vice president last Friday and spent a little bit over an hour with them talking about the issues at hand, talking about how they feel and what they’re experiencing, but then really looking ahead on how we can keep this conversation going.”

The focal point for the UTRGV athletic department and campus community so far?

Education and initiating, as well as extending, the conversation.

“We certainly don’t want to have to wait for another crisis to revisit this topic and I know it’s important to coach Hill, coach (Darren) Flowers and our whole coaching staff and administration to keep those conversations alive and be agents of change and try to figure out a way that we can as leaders in our athletic department, but also our student athletes can be a part of that,” Conque added. “Dr. (Guy) Bailey has been extremely supportive. He joined our coaches’ meeting and really spoke from the heart last Thursday when we met as coaches. Dr. Bailey was clear in his leadership and clear in his commitment and we look forward to continuing that conversation.”

“For me, over the last few months you see everything that’s transpired and really my conversations began with just coaching colleagues across the country. We’re not in the middle of a track season, obviously, so there is a lot more time to reflect and direct your energy to these types of things,” said Flowers, UTRGV’s track and field head coach for hurdles and sprints. “Talking to coaches — white, black and brown — we deal with a very diverse group of kids, but just talking to my coaching colleagues and seeing, especially my black friends and colleagues, the fear that they have and the frustration that they have. They were really reaching out and a lot of them have kids that are 10-15 years old and they’re afraid for them.”

“I think the change has started. I’ve been through a lot of the riots and I’ve been through a lot of the police brutality, but I think for the first time when I’m looking at the protesting, I’m seeing a lot of different colors out there protesting,” Hill said. “As a black man, that makes me feel good that there’s a lot of different races and religious and ethnic groups fighting for the right cause. And I say the ‘right’ cause because that’s what it is. We don’t want anything special; we just want to be treated equally.

“But me, man, I’m in the rainbow coalition. I love what UTRGV and the athletic department are doing. When I spoke to Chasse about not just letting this be for two weeks, he assured me, it doesn’t have to be every day, but that we would continuously fight the fight and walk the walk and stay in it. As an African-American coach, you love that.”

Conque, Flowers and Hill all recognized that they each had a role to play.

For them, that meant using their platform to advocate for change.

“It’s very frustrating, but I feel like we have a great platform as coaches and I think that we are at the forefront of diversity and inclusion. We have very diverse groups of kids on campus, probably the most diverse of any program, and I think it is important that we, athletics, are at the forefront,” Flowers said. “We have a huge platform and I think we can be major agents of change. That’s really where my conversations started on this. I even reached out to coach Hill when this stuff was going on because I just wanted to let him know that I supported him and was 110% behind him. I know it’s tough and I know I can never truly understand the struggle, but I want to understand and I want to be an agent for change myself.”

“We’re providing the opportunity and providing the platform, and coach Hill said it best, sometimes just get quiet and listen. One thing I really learned was to sit back, listen and understand and try to understand. We can’t control the world, but we’ve got 350 people in our operation with our student athletes, our coaches and our administrators, and we’re a powerful group,” Conque said. “We’re respected on our campus and we’re a diverse group. We’re a whole bunch of uncommon people coming together for a common cause, whether it’s to win championships or to tackle this conversation head on. We want to make sure we’re doing our part to help heal our campus community in places that it needs to be healed and really have that platform, and make sure that our black coaches and black student athletes and members of our staff feel safe, feel valued, feel respected and that they feel absolutely equal.

“Words are words, but I’ve never felt more confident that we’ve got a great group of people that are ready to walk the walk. In the midst of this dark time, I think that’s what excites some of us is that we’re comfortable having that conversation and it’s folks like Lew Hill that put some ease in the room and make it very real for you to be able to talk about things. We’re very grateful to have that within our department and we’re grateful to have the platform and start working with our campus community to keep it going.”

“I think as an athletic department with Chasse leading, we’re going in the right direction of change. Like Darren said, when it first happened he texted me immediately and I appreciate that. I’ve had some other coaches text me and have conversations, but it started with Chasse when he came to me,” Hill said. “I was going to seek him out, but he was already on it and that meant a lot to me and it showed me that he was on board, which I appreciated that so much and I’ve been telling people that when you have someone that runs a department that spearheads conversations like this.”

Conque, Flowers and Hill each bring unique perspectives to the table steeped in lives devoted to and surrounded by sports.

“When you’re dealing with sports, you’re dealing with all nationalities and religion groups so you’ve got to be versatile,” Hill said. “Coaches really have to have the right frame of mind when they’re coaching. I always think that sports can help heal the world.”

Flowers, who grew up in Oklahoma City, recalls playing in youth sports leagues where he initially met many met black friends and teammates and where he first learned of their struggle for genuine equality.

“Being around people of a different color wasn’t really anything (new) for me, but when it started to come to light was when I heard their parents speak about different struggles and things like that. Then I distinctly remember the Rodney King incident and being around my friends and their families and hearing them talk about that, it impacted me greatly,” Flowers said. “I’ve always known that I wanted to be a coach and influence and impact young people’s lives, but seeing that and understanding the impact of that I knew that I had to be a voice that was about inclusion and condemned racism.

“I told coach Hill that I think our role, especially being a white coach or person of influence, it’s really important that we have our voice heard and that we condemn this and speak up, and I think that that’s really a lot of the issue with what you would call white privilege. We have had the privilege of not having to have this conversation,” he continued. “Is it comfortable all the time? No, because you’re having to talk to family members, friends and colleagues that have grown up this way, and I think we have to be willing to give up a little bit of that privilege in order to make progress and better this situation.”

For Conque, whose grandfather and father were both head college football coaches, sports have been a constant theme throughout his life and have similarly shaped his point of view.

“In my background, sports is really all I know,” Conque said. “What coach Hill was talking about, if this is a disease that this country was born with, when in your family tree can you pinpoint where things changed for your family? I can pinpoint that in mine, but there are some families and some individuals that are going to be that pivot point for generations to come for their family. That’s what we want to make sure we’re doing.”

The trio and UTRGV Athletics as a whole has been intent on engaging its campus communities and the local community more broadly in order to give people a platform to voice their concerns and foster mutual understanding.

“We’ve had several discussions at the leadership level and had a really productive one on Monday morning about this not just really being an athletics piece. Obviously, we have taken a lead in some of these things in addressing it head on, but racism and hatred and peace and love is not just an athletics initiative, so we had some broader discussions. Right now we’re on summer break and our students are taking summer classes online, but my comment to them is, ‘Let’s not wait,’” Conque said. “We’re very comfortable right now with the virtual world, so there’s some things we’re working with student affairs, and I told coach Hill this earlier this week, but we have an opportunity to use our platform, our coaches and possibly our young people at some point to have conversations with our campus community. We’re looking at something later this month in late June or early July and inviting not just our student athletes, but the entire campus community to have that conversation.”

Part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley basketball team lock arms in unison in the final moments of the fourth quarter against California Baptist during a Western Athletic Conference game at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Saturday, Mar. 7, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The central focus of the group’s discussion and work so far has been education, with an emphasis on maintaining that focus consistently over the course of time.

“I’ve always believed that when people are growing up and going through history, they don’t tell you enough about the real history. For some period, you’re taught that there’s only one great black man when you’re growing up, and that’s Martin Luther King, when there’s so many others,” Hill said. “But in the social studies and history classes, they don’t teach you the whole truth like with World War II. There were so many black people who fought in that war just like anybody else and just like in World War I and even the Civil War. But you don’t know that; you don’t know the names. I think we have to learn our history and I think white people need to learn their history and grow from there and learn. Then they can understand some of the anger, the struggle and the fight that we go through, but because people don’t want to talk about it and tell the truth in some instances, you don’t know and understand especially if you’re young.”

“Everybody, when you go through situations like this and you’re faced with the hurt and trying to understand, people do different things and, for me, that’s education. It’s watching certain documentaries, it’s understanding history and it’s again going back to listening. We’ll work with our staff and SAC. SAC has a diversity inclusion committee, so this will be our young people helping us lead this charge,” Conque said. “Like coach Hill said, it might not be something that we have to talk about every single day, but they have to know exactly what we stand for every day so we’re going to be very strategic with our programming this fall with our life skills work and hopefully create leaders who want to lead these conversations and create these environments where our student athletes feel that they can be open and really in judgement free zones. It doesn’t matter if you’re the athletic director, the president of the institution, a head coach or a student athlete, when we get in that room and we talk about things, we’re all equal. We’re just people, people trying to figure this out and who want to be known for what we stand for.”

The group is also appreciative of this unique cultural moment in time defined by the coronavirus shutdown and calls for reform that has helped amplify their message and made it resonate.

“Personally, it’s really allowed me to reflect on my own biases and say, ‘Where do I come from? Where am I at on this issue? Am I open enough? Am I listening enough?’ Our student athletes and coaches need to feel like they can speak about this issue and that we can have these conversations,” Flowers said. “I think the major benefit out of this whole situation and moment in time is people feel like they can speak, so now is the time to listen. It is unfortunate that it took all of this to get to this point, but we’re here and I think that we take advantage of it, especially having athletics as a platform like we do. I really think we can make a lot of progress in the position that we’re in.”