CJ Thorpe is no stranger to the spotlight on Penn State’s campus, a consistent focal point on a football field on fall Saturdays when the Nittany Lions play and an insightful voice about whatever happened on that gridiron after it’s all over.
On Sunday, the mammoth guard had another crowd around him, more cameras rolling, more words to say and an all-too-familiar topic to discuss at a “Justice for George Floyd” rally.
Thorpe’s words lasted less than four minutes. But they’ve since been praised as passionate and reasoned, knowledgeable and strong, insistent on peace but demanding of change in a world that saw Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American, killed during an arrest when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin drove his knee into the prone and handcuffed Floyd’s neck May 25. Chauvin has since been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers who participated in the arrest have not been charged, and Floyd’s death has led to nationwide protests since the incident.
Many have remained peaceful, like the one at which Thorpe spoke at the State College Municipal Building. Others have seen looting and violence spin off peaceful assemblies.
“Those of you who are here today and are scared thinking that the police might attack you, that the police might pepper spray you, that the police might go up and do something whenever you are just here peacefully, you are understanding what it’s like to be black in America,” Thorpe said. “We are sick and tired of being scared for our lives. We are sick and tired of having to teach our brothers to be smarter than the policeman who was trained for this job.”
As days have passed since Floyd’s death, many in the sports world have released statements asking for much of what Thorpe did: An end to violence. A coming together. Using “the power of the people,” as Thorpe put it, to change mindsets and affect change. But in doing so, they’ve come to understand that it is important to express anger without urging more, even as their own frustration boils over.
Thorpe’s speech wasn’t written out and read off a piece paper. But finding the right tone and right words is often much easier planned for than accomplished.
“It’s very important because when you’re an African-American football player at Penn State, you represent so much,” Nittany Lions defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said during a video conference Tuesday afternoon. “You represent your family’s name. You represent the university. You represent the guys in the locker room. You also represent young African-American kids who aspire to be in our positions down the road.
“Twenty years down the road, I don’t want kids to feel like they don’t have a voice. I don’t want them to feel like they can’t say what they want to say. We do have to walk a tightrope in what we say. But at the end of the day, we are able to voice our opinions. That’s what’s important to me when I’m going through all of this; I want to be a representative of what to do for kids who want to be in my position. And I want to do it in the correct way.”
Penn State coach James Franklin released a stirring statement on the issue Saturday, saying that while his emotions over Floyd’s treatment were raw, it brought about a need for Americans to recognize their differences and right the direction of a nation that concerned him.
“It’s not only the tragic deaths of these individuals the last few weeks, it’s the smothering of hope and the suffocation of a dream that left me feeling so raw,” he wrote. “These were citizens of our country, and if we are to take a step forward, we cannot leave them behind.”
Mustipher said this is a time athletes can speak out, but he conceded similar times have come and gone, and athletes have often been expected to go back to talking only about sports once the tumult fades. He wants this time to be different, to be the moment when the treatment of minorities can be talked about not just in times of trouble, but year-round. This is a feeling, he said, too important to forget. And those are conversations to necessary to abandon as a matter of comfort.
Thorpe stressed to onlookers that he didn’t want his words considered a call to violence. He wanted, he said, what he had in front of him, a peaceful gathering of angry, fed-up people coming together to use “the power of the people” to demand an equal system and greater understanding.
There’s just one way to gain that understanding.
“Get educated,” Thorpe warned. “Because this is a lot bigger than it is right now, I promise you.”
Donnie Collins has been a member of The Times-Tribune sports staff for nearly 20 years and has been the Penn State football beat writer for Times-Shamrock Newspapers since 2004. The Penn State Football Blog covers Nittany Lions, Big Ten and big-time college football news from Beaver Stadium to the practice field, the bowl game to National Letter of Intent Signing Day. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9100 x5368; @DonnieCollinsTT