Ole Miss, USF football coaches, players participate in unity walks

Lane Kiffin gives powerful speech at rally (0:53)

Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin gives a powerful speech at a rally about moving forward together to promote change. (0:53)

Ole Miss football coach Lane Kiffin, who took part in a unity walk on the campus Saturday along with athletes and coaches from various sports as well as athletic administrators, said he was "proud to stand with his players" in the fight against racial injustice.

"It's something that the football team and entire athletic department did together after listening to our players throughout the week about what we could do to support them," Kiffin told ESPN. "The important thing, though, is that this is just the start."

Kiffin told ESPN that players made it abundantly clear that they wanted to see a Confederate monument on the Ole Miss campus moved.

"After hearing their voices, I fully support them wanting that statue moved," Kiffin said.

Earlier this year, university administrators, student leaders and faculty leaders had recommended that the marble statue of a saluting Confederate soldier be moved from its spot near the main administrative building to a Civil War cemetery in a more-secluded spot on campus. But wanting more information, the state College Board tabled the university's resolution to relocate the statue.

The monument was vandalized May 30 and according to the Oxford Eagle, police arrested one person at the scene that evening. The vandalism occurred as people demonstrated across the country in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

"We're going to work together to make sure things change. They have to change. This is a good step, but just the first step," said Kiffin, entering his first season as Ole Miss' coach.

Ole Miss' unity walk started on the track and ended on the football practice fields, where several people spoke, including Kiffin, athletic director Keith Carter, women's basketball coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin and Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill.

Coaches and players wore blue shirts that read: "UNITY" on the front. Several carried signs ranging from "BLACK LIVES MATTER" to "SILENCE IS NOT OK" to "I AM GEORGE FLOYD."

Ole Miss athletics' Twitter feed posted video from the walk.

Senior defensive end Ryder Anderson spoke at the end of the walk.

"We are here because racism is here," Anderson said. "We are here because police brutality is here, because systematic oppression is here all across America, including Mississippi, including right here in Oxford. So my challenge to you is to fight it."

That challenge to fight was echoed in Tampa, Florida, where USF senior cornerback KJ Sails organized a unity walk that drew teammates, coaches and others across USF athletics as well as members of the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, Titus O'Neil from WWE and members of the Tampa Bay community.

Sails, a Tampa native, said he wanted to contribute and on Thursday took to social media to ask people to join him for the walk.

Despite a steady rain, between 300-400 people participated. That included football coach Jeff Scott, men's basketball coach Brian Gregory, women's basketball coach Jose Fernandez, volleyball coach Jolene Shepardson, athletic director Michael Kelly and former USF players, including Sam Barrington and current Green Bay Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

"We walked peacefully and there was no chaos. We simply walked as one, and I feel like it spoke measures to the world," Sails said in a phone interview with ESPN's Andrea Adelson. "It's not about color. It's about coming together as one, as a community, to show that together we can sow change."

Scott said nearly every member of the USF football team attended Saturday's walk, remarkable considering this is the first time they have been together since the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to team activities in March. Bulls players are not scheduled to resume voluntary on-campus workouts until next week.

"It was a very powerful statement," Scott said. "We feel a football team is one of the greatest examples in our society of people coming together from different races and different backgrounds and being able to come together as one. That message of unity was preached from our players starting on Monday. I really like what I have seen from the guys taking some meaningful steps this week in bringing everyone together."

The walk went through a historic black neighborhood and ended at the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which Sails attended while growing up. He addressed the crowd, saying in part, "Being a young black father of a 2-year-old son who thinks the world of me made me question how many George Floyds and Emmett Tills does it to take for them to stop killing blacks? Watching 46-year-old George Floyd cry out for his mother made me feel hopeless. All I can think is that could have been me. It could have been you. What if it was your daughter or your son?"

At Charlotte, 49ers coach Will Healy and his family joined more than 500 protesters in a march through campus. Healy said he wrestled with whether to bring his 5-year-old son, Eli, but ultimately decided it was an important event for the boy to witness.

"[Eli] needs to be here and understand and continue to build relationships with people who may not look like him," said Healy, who was joined by the majority of his staff and many players Saturday. "He doesn't understand all that's going on, but it can have a profound impact on his life, and he'll have an opportunity to change all that's going on right now."

Healy said he has asked his team to be more involved in social-justice causes, and spent meeting time earlier in the week educating players on the need to be informed about candidates and issues and to register to vote.

"We've got to make sure we continue to push the button," Healy said. "This is great. A march is great. Voting is great. They're great steps, but the real thing is, can we continue to run the race? We can't get complacent and feel like we fixed it because we let them go vote."

On Sunday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, his wife, assistant coaches and players took part in a Black Lives Matter rally in Auburn, Alabama. The event included speeches and a walk from Toomer's Corner to the Auburn police department, according to Montgomery Advertiser.

ESPN's David Hale contributed to this report.