Underwood seniors

Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

From left, former Illinois men's basketball players  Samson Oladimeji, Kipper Nichols, Tyler Underwood and Andres Feliz join Illinois coach Brad Underwood during senior night ceremonies at State Farm Center in Champaign on March 8.

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CHAMPAIGN — Ayo Dosunmu understands he has a platform.

As an elite level athlete.

As a young, black man.

The 20-year-old Illinois guard used that platform on Monday afternoon to speak publicly with Big Ten Network’s Dave Revsine on the nationwide unrest that has spread across the country in the wake of last week’s death of George Floyd while detained by Minneapolis police officers and other police violence.

“It was a tragedy,” Dosunmu told Revsine. “For me, when I first watched the video, I really couldn’t watch the video because it was so heartbreaking seeing George Floyd being treated like that. It was just sad.

“Me, being a black man, an elite black basketball player, it’s my job to spread knowledge to the youth and spread knowledge to the world that black lives do matter. Black lives matter, definitely. Not saying that all lives don’t matter, but black lives are the ones that are hurting right now and are the ones that need the most love. Hopefully, there will be a time when we can come together as a nation and this stuff won’t be going on anymore.”

Dosunmu views his platform as a way to spread awareness about police violence and racial inequities. His hope is to enlighten, but also bring people together to understand it’s a problem that needs to be solved.

“This is a problem that’s been going on for decades and, really, centuries,” Dosunmu said. “The crazy part of how I think about it is it’s been going on for so long, and now we’re finally starting to get it on camera.

“Imagine how long it’s been going on without it being on camera, how long it’s been going on without people having recordings. It just makes me sick to think that I know, I’m positive, it’s been going on for so long. I just try to have a role in society and just give my voice because I know there’s people who look up to me. I know there’s kids who look up to me. Me positively finding a way to attack the issue will definitely go to finding a way to attack the issue and go a long way in helping solve the issue at the end of the day.”

Dosunmu isn’t the only person connected with Illinois athletics to speak up in the last several days.

Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman released a lengthy statement on the events of the past week Monday evening. The delay, he said, concerned finding the right words to express his feelings in addition to knowing it could just be seen as “another statement from another white person in a position of power and privilege to be quoted in the media, filed away, and then forgotten.”

“Change will come only if words are supported by actions, and only if those actions carry forward long after the protests subside, the cameras stop recording, and the media’s attention shifts elsewhere,” Whitman continued. “Change will come when no one is watching, when what truly exists in our hearts, minds, and spirits pushes us to undertake the gritty, painstaking steps needed to precipitate a new ideal for equality in America.

“Systemic racism exists in our country. Until enough of the people who developed and are responsible for maintaining that system admit that, achieving change will be virtually impossible.”

Multiple Illini coaches, both black and white, have also released statements on social media in recent days. Other student-athletes, also black and white, have been active on social media, too.

“The events of the last few days have been heartbreaking,” Illinois men’s basketball coach Brad Underwood wrote. “I pray for the family of George Floyd, and for healing to the pain and grief so many across our country are suffering at this time. I became a coach to help young people. And it is my responsibility as a leader to the many young black men in our program that I provide a safe environment where they can be heard and supported while processing emotions stirred from the harsh reality of the unfair world we all live in.

“Illinois basketball is a family. We believe in treating everyone with respect, and we try and foster compassion through the willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand their perspective. Unfortunately our basketball family is not able to be together at this time, so we will talk as a team on Zoom about what has occurred and how we can impact change. It starts with listening, caring and respecting one another. I vow to do my part.”

Two of Underwood’s incoming freshmen have also thrown their support to the idea behind the peaceful protests and demonstrations. Andre Curbelo posted an edited photo of himself with “I can’t breathe” on his jersey along with a statement from the Long Island Lutheran (N.Y.) basketball program.

Fellow incoming freshman Adam Miller has actively retweeted comments during the last week, while engaging more on Instagram. The Morgan Park guard and Peoria native posted multiple edited photos either wearing or holding an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt. His most engaging post included a lengthy caption posted along with photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and more from the Civil Rights movement. He also referenced a comment President Donald Trump made last week.

“Are the riots acceptable?” Miller wrote. “That’s based on your opinion. MLK protested peacefully and Malcolm X during his early years of the black rights movement did them more forcefully.

“(Whether) you protest peacefully or forcefully they will hate you. Trump gave the OK to shoot at anyone looting. Trump also called (out) Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem as a hate symbol to the country and now he has no job, so please tell me what must be done? I honestly want to hear people’s opinions.”

Illinois senior guard Trent Frazier also posted to Twitter and Instagram photoshopped photos of himself wearing an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt. Sophomore center Kofi Cockburn also took to Instagram with a photo carrying a message of support for black men and a caption reading “For whoever needs to hear this, you are loved.”

The Illinois basketball team isn’t alone in expressing itself on social media. Redshirt junior defensive lineman Jamal Woods of the Illinois football team has been active on Twitter in the past several days, including his reaction to the looting of Western Hills Mall in Fairfield, Ala., near his hometown of Hueytown, Ala.

“How are we helping ourselves when we are destroying ourselves?” Woods wrote about the mall, adding it was part of the black community in that area of Alabama. “Now watch all of those people who work at the mall will no longer have jobs, and I know they (won’t) rebuild Western Hills because Fairfield barely had money anyway. Man we got to do better. Justice is needed but this is not the appropriate action.”

Illinois women’s basketball coach Nancy Fahey also posted to Twitter on Sunday. Newly-hired assistant coach Venette Skeete, who is black, did the same.

“Racism and injustice are simply wrong,” Fahey wrote. “I pray for George Floyd and his family. Change starts with each of us. I stand beside my staff and team to be a part of the solution.”

“I’m emotionally drained,” Skeete also wrote. “Not just from current actions, this is our everyday life. But from constant excuses and silence that forgive these acts. I’m drained because I fear for when or WHO I know or love that might be NEXT. The dead can’t return to say what justifies their life.”

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).