Purdue players make a uniform statement

Purdue University

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The fans packing Mackey Arena on Tuesday night are coming to watch Purdue play high-level basketball against nationally ranked Louisville (8 ET on ESPN).

But when the Boilermakers take the court for warm-ups, the crowd will notice something else, something the players believe ought to be seen, something that goes beyond ball.

Each of Purdue's 14 players will wear a shirt containing a word, selected by either himself or a teammate, that they hope will help to mend a splintering country. It's not as divisive as an anthem protest, but the Boilermakers are choosing not to stick to sports, while using their sporting platform to push values they believe make the world a bit better.

Compassion. Empathy. Equality. Forgiveness. Friendship. Humility. Justice. Love. Loyalty. Peace. Respect. Togetherness. Tolerance. Unity. Those words will be displayed on shooting shirts before Purdue games this season.

"The shirts pretty much stand for everything we need in this world right now," senior forward Vincent Edwards said. "We just wanted to give the message. All the words make you think when you see 14 different players run out with 14 different words on their chest. We don't want to be people that just keep the world going in this cycle because right now, it seems like we're reverting back.

"Our generation wants to change the world, and I think it starts with us."

The idea started with Elliot Bloom, the team's director of basketball administration and operations. Bloom occasionally leads player discussions (without coaches present) about topics beyond college basketball. They've talked about everything from the Las Vegas shootings to protests by athletes during the national anthem. As Purdue boarded a bus to Columbus, Ohio, to face West Virginia in a Nov. 5 scrimmage, Bloom suggested to senior guard P.J. Thompson that the players brainstorm words to go on their warm-up shirts for the upcoming season.

Thompson loved the idea and immediately summoned Edwards to start a group text. They asked each player to submit two possible words before the bus reached Columbus. The instructions were simple: "Come up with the words you believe in," guard Carsen Edwards said.

The best 14 -- one from each player -- were selected for the shirts. Thompson picked tolerance after exchanging texts with his mother, Tonja. Vincent Edwards also thought of his parents, who always told him, "Be humble. Always be respectful." So he picked humility.

"It's such a huge, inspirational word," he said. "When you think about humility, you think about the stronger-willed people in the world who can see past color or don't see color or can think outside the box and not judge people. That was one word that stuck out to me because that's the type of person I am."

As Purdue's bus traveled along Interstate 70, a roster representing seven states, two countries and multiple ethnicities tried to find the right words to apply to all people.

"It's pretty cool because there's a lot of diversity among our team," guard Dakota Mathias said. "It shows how we come together and the chemistry and loyalty we have for one another."

Loyalty, not surprisingly, is one of the words Mathias submitted and the one displayed on his warm-up shirt. Mathias was raised under the golden rule. His parents, Daniel and Tracy, encouraged Mathias and his two brothers to help others and value allegiances. Loyalty was the obvious choice.

"I've always been a loyal guy," Mathias said. "In today's society, there's a lot of stuff going on, a lot of hatred, a lot of disloyalty. It's all about how you treat people."

After collecting all the nominations, the players started choosing the 14 words for the shirts. There was some overlap -- several players submitted respect, love and loyalty -- but it didn't take long to finalize the list.

On the morning of Nov. 6, Brad Andrews, the team's equipment manager, received an email from Bloom with all the words for the shirts. Purdue's season opener against SIU-Edwardsville was four days away. Andrews had blank shirts available from Nike, so he simply had to have the words printed at a local screen printer for about $140.

"We actually didn't assign them [to players]," Andrews said. "I was just like, 'Get one of each, and we'll figure it out from there.' It's based off sizing. Dakota and P.J. wear the same sized shirts, so I literally tossed it up in the air and the first one grabbed it."

Mathias made sure he got loyalty. Carsen Edwards fought to wear love, his submission. Isaac Haas, Purdue's 7-foot-2 center, received empathy, as that was the only shirt that came in his size (XX-tall). Vincent Edwards' submission, humility, is worn by teammate Tommy Luce before games, while Edwards dons tolerance and usually leads the team onto the court.

Togetherness, worn by Grady Eifert before games, is the word coach Matt Painter would've picked if he still played for the Boilers. But Painter likes all the words on the shooting shirts because they come from players, not coaches.

When some NFL players began kneeling for the national anthem last season, Painter asked his players what they wanted to do. If they wanted to kneel, he wouldn't stop them. He just didn't want any surprises.

"We never talked about doing it as a team," Edwards said. "If we were to do it, guys weren't against it, but we saw this as another way we can do it, and it turned out better."

The Boilers weren't interested in a protest during the anthem, but Painter thinks the fact that more professional athletes are sharing the reasons for their demonstrations has given athletes such as Purdue's an opportunity to think about how they want to express themselves on a unique platform.

"It shows that Purdue knows what's going on in our world," Thompson said. "We're not just caught up in the basketball bubble. We realize what's going on in our world. It shows a maturity about us and that we want to help."

Purdue didn't publicize the shooting shirts before its season opener. It only posted a tweet shortly before tipoff, showing the shirts and a message: These are traits and qualities that we as humans need more of and need to show to others on a daily basis. Players weren't exactly sure how the crowd would react.

The verdict? All positive. Some fans want to buy the shirts, which aren't for sale. (Andrews made only one for each player, so he guards them with his life and likely will make duplicates soon.) Thompson's younger brother, Isaiah, who has a Purdue scholarship offer, wants one, and several of P.J.'s professors have complimented him and the team.

"It's an educated fan base, so a lot of people made comments about they think it's pretty neat," Painter said. "The thing that people like the most is they did this on their own. It's their thoughts. So many things are framed today in sports: 'What's the right thing for us to do or the right thing for us to say?' When in reality, say how you feel."

Painter hopes the demonstration humanizes his players. Fans will always come to watch them dunk and shoot and rebound and defend. That will never change. But this season, the Boilers are offering something more.

"We don't want to use our four years here just to play basketball and help Purdue win games," Thompson said. "We want to use our four years to try and make a difference. It could be someone in Idaho or Wisconsin who loves Purdue, and [the words on the shirts] actually meant something to them. They might think, 'I need to spread more love, show more respect, be more loyal.'

"I don't know, it might change someone's life."