Trey Smith has heard plenty of cheers on Saturdays in Knoxville. He did on this one, too, though it was as a public speaker.

The University of Tennessee’s star football player talked about being tired.

Tired of being scared and worrying about seeing a police officer in public. Tired of social media detractors. Tired of racist comments, racist jokes, tired of those who’d condone them “but then it’s OK when he finds out I’m a football player.”

Smith doesn’t want pity. He wants wants to be treated equally, with dignity and respect.

Such an impassioned speech, which ended up across social media, showcased maturity well beyond his 21 years and courage well beyond football. It’s not as easy as Smith made it look.

Tennessee Vols fans really should be proud of this young man.

Sadly, some won’t allow themselves to be.

Like many other athletes in the past week, Smith made himself a target for criticism because he used his platform to raise uncomfortable truths that many refuse to acknowledge and would rather not hear.

The disdain from those who prefer athletes be seen and not heard is embodied in a notorious line by Fox News’ Laura Ingraham aimed a couple of years ago at LeBron James and Kevin Durant after they criticized President Donald Trump.

“Shut up and dribble.”

Ingraham was irritated, really, more by what James and Durant were saying than the fact they were saying it. Like many pundits on both sides of the aisle, Ingraham’s hypocrisy has since been demonstrated by her support of other athletes speaking out politically with opinions in line with hers and her viewership.

But the lingering sentiment of those four words — so contemptuous and dismissive — has resonated and become its own rallying cry. In a pivotal moment, athletes are speaking out instead of shutting up.

When history remembers this troubled, transitional period in American civil rights, it will note that the loudest, most influential cries for change, in fact, originated from the sports world.

So many athletes of all races and backgrounds and ages, pro as well as college, are calling for long-needed change in a time when many of their elected leaders — fearful of political ramifications in a bitterly divided society — have stood somewhere between silent and antagonistic.

“Some people may just want to look at (students) as athletes,” Vanderbilt athletics director Candice Storey Lee told me, “but they are people who are trying to figure out how to navigate a platform and do it responsibly. And the thing is, people listen to them. …

“If things are going to change, it’s probably the young people that are going to change it. Because they’ve had enough.”

What’s happening now is far from unprecedented. Sports have long been at the forefront of the American civil rights, from Jackie Robinson to John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics to Muhammad Ali.

This has started to feel different, however, in that sports have collectively become a singular driving force.

The feeling is “If not now, when?” and “If not us, who?”

“There’s not too many Martin Luther Kings or a Malcolm X. Young kids look up to athletes now. That’s their heroes,” Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro said Friday. “That’s their heroes. People can say, ‘shut up and dribble’ or ‘stick to sports,’ but at the same time, enough is enough.”

Such a response has been widespread throughout sports, not just with Black players, but teammates of all backgrounds, coaches, teams and entire leagues and universities.

Tennessee’s football program moved its scheduled practice to the evening to accommodate Saturday’s planned march, allowing Vols players like Smith to participate.

“Here at Tennessee — I’ve said this before – we’re going to use our platform to help create change and to be at the forefront of it,” Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said Friday. “Our players believe in it. Our staff believes in it. Our administration believes in it. We’re going to continue to support them in this movement.”

Such clear and outspoken support by an SEC football coach like Pruitt isn’t unique in August 2020, but it would have been not that long ago.

Changes taking place, again, are more apparent in sports than seemingly anywhere else. That in itself is encouraging, while it’s also discouraging to look around and think, “Why are athletes taking on such a burden? Why are they the ones who seem to be getting this right?”

“You think about sports and you think about people from all different backgrounds coming together with a common goal,” said Vanderbilt’s Lee. “It’s a structure that, I think, as a country we can learn from.”

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes. 

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