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Saban leads a different March of Champions

Nick Saban has led his football team to many great victories during his time in Tuscaloosa. He has led the Crimson Tide to wins in regular season games against the biggestname opponents. He has led the team to SEC championships and to national championships. He stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, which is heady company for any football coach.

But the leadership he has demonstrated during the COVID-19 crisis and in the racial tensions that have gripped the nation is leadership above and beyond the call of duty for a football coach. Saban has often talked about the process of not simply building great football players, but of building great young men.

There is not a greater example of his leadership than the march he led Aug. 31, when the team wished to make a statement in support of social justice. Saban, just as he does on game days, led his team, but this time it was a very different March of Champions.

Normally, the walkway leading to Bryant-Denny Stadium is lined with rabid Alabama fans trying to catch a glimpse or take a photo of the legendary coach and his players as they enter the stadium. But on Aug. 31, I think the street was lined with the spirits of Vivian Malone and James A. Hood and the tangible presence of Autherine Lucy Foster.

Perhaps among those cheering along this Walk of Champions were the protesters who were beaten by Tuscaloosa area law enforcement officers on “Bloody Tuesday,” when they attempted to march from First African Baptist Church to the new county courthouse to protest the inclusion of segregated facilities.

Maybe the spirit of recently deceased U.S. Rep. John Lewis who suffered at the hands of those determined to enforce Jim Crow laws with uncommon brutality on the bridge in Selma on “Bloody Sunday” was present, cheering on the Alabama football team. Maybe the voices of all those who were silenced by lynchings could be heard as the football players marched to Foster Auditorium.

In fact, it is not hard to think that the voices of all those who have been slain unjustly by police officers or at the hands of racists were there crying out in praise of Saban and all those young men and women who marched behind him.

And Saban was not alone in leading this march. Running back Najee Harris was a prime mover in organizing the march and was the first student-athlete to speak in front of Foster Auditorium as he stood in front of the plaque commemorating the courageous integration of the university by Malone and Hood in defiance of then-Gov. George Wallace, who stood there in an attempt to prevent them from enrolling.

Harris is a fine running back and has a chance to become one of Alabama’s all-time rushing leaders, but maybe his leadership in making sure that the voices of the studentathletes were heard is every bit as important as yards gained and touchdowns scored and will resonate long after his tenure at UA is complete.

Athletics Director Greg Byrne marched with the team as did head basketball coach Nate Oats. Student-athletes from other

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Gary Cosby Jr.

Columnist The Tuscaloosa News USA TODAY NETWORK

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sports marched behind the football team. A few marchers held signs, but there were no chants, no songs, just silent determination that their voices would be heard in support of social justice.

Just as all things that have happened under Saban’s watch have unfolded with class, so also this march and rally unfolded. It is a mark of his love for his players that he stood with them and offered the first speech in front of Foster Auditorium.

But some on social media cried out as if Saban had stabbed them in the heart because he stood at the forefront as his football team marched. They were, of course, angry that Saban was standing for social justice. I wonder, do they not realize, that if one does not stand up for social justice, he is actually standing up for discrimination? Is that really what these critics want?

They do not mind cheering for black athletes as long as they are in those crimson jerseys, but the moment they are out of uniform they become subject to their derision. That is a fine hypocrisy. No movement is perfect, and the Black Lives Matter movement is no exception. There is plenty going on that is not excellent, some of it is not even lawful, but the principle that black men and women deserve to be treated the same as white men and women by law enforcement officers and by the courts of this land is something that every American, regardless of color, should be standing up for.

No man, woman, or child in this nation should have to suffer injustice or fear because they are not white. To believe otherwise is to admit you are a racist.

Gary Cosby Jr. is photo editor of The Tuscaloosa News. Readers can email him at gary.cosby@tuscaloosanews. com.

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