Buffalo shooting has local coaches searching for ways to talk race | Sports

Sanquin Starks couldn’t believe what he was reading. It made him angry and sad, emotions which melted together to create an unbearable feeling in his stomach.

In the wake of the act of domestic terrorism in which a Broome County man targeted and killed 10 Black people and wounded three more Saturday at Tops Friendly Markets on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo, one of Starks’ 716 United basketball players sent a message describing fear of leaving his house.

Two days later, a friend of Starks’ awoke to find a racial slur painted on his home in the Town of Niagara, causing more fear. Most coaches urge players to stay home and avoid trouble. Now Starks had console players afraid of menial activities like going to the grocery store.

Starks has been in the position before. Not long ago, a player trotted to the sideline during an AAU tournament to tell Starks an opponent uttered a slur in his direction. That scenario would have caused a volcanic eruption in Starks or his friends when the played. His players acted unfazed and numb, as if it was commonplace.

These occurrences make the blood in Starks’ veins boil. He’s sharing the same pain and the same hurt. He knows what it’s like to toe the line as a kid and still be hassled like a criminal, solely because he’s Black.

But Starks has seen too many coaches wilt after promises of caring about the person more than the player. For Starks, these scenarios are cause for conversation, reassurance and planning. They can’t be brushed aside until the next time, because there’s seemingly always a next time.

“We live in a world right now where if you are a young, Black man, you have to be cautious,” Starks said. “You have to watch your back. You have to watch your surroundings. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth. All of our kids — whether they’re Black or white — they have to be educated on this stuff. We teach our kids to be brothers and sisters. We all love each other in our circle, but outside that circle they aren’t always going to feel the same way.”

Starks founded 716 United in Niagara Falls to provide athletic structure for a basketball-rich city with limited programs to offer its talent. He also desires to show players how to use basketball as means to secure a college education, whether a scholarship is on the line or not.

Even as Starks attempts to instill hope in kids to find avenues toward a life led in neighborhoods free of crime and drugs, they won’t always be well received by the inhabitants. He recalls racially-charged incidents when his brother James used his earnings from his career playing for the Green Bay Packers to purchase his mother a house in new neighborhood.

“I want them to use this sport to get them to a situation where I pray they live a life that has quality to it,” Starks said. “Rarely do I think of that as a professional athlete. I think about that as a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer — if we can get them into a school and a neighborhood they don’t have to worry about certain things. But maybe they will still. They’ll still be Black. We want our kids to have a quality of life. The sport is just a tool.”

Intertwining athletics and race

Using the word n-word may be the quickest way to make longtime Niagara Falls football coach Don Bass explode. There is no positive connotation to derive from using it, he said, regardless of who speaks it and to whom it’s directed.

For years, Bass has prioritized crafting gentlemen over top-notch athletes. When players leave his watchful eye, he wants to make sure no one is stricken with fear when they cross them on the sidewalk.

His methods have seen productive results, but Bass knows there will always be people filled with hatred, often fueled by ignorance. Bass says kids are sponges and they learn through what they see and hear on television, social media and from adults.

“Racism is a learned behavior,” Bass said. “… You drop a bunch of multi-ethnic babies on an island and leave them alone, they’ll figure out a way to eat; they’ll figure out a way to procreate. Everything else has to be taught, it has to be learned. … You have to be careful what you fill your mind with because it’s going to affect you, good, bad or indifferent.”

Athletics has proven to be a pathway that leads to broader conversations. Team structures can foster more intimate settings that force kids to connect. Miles Patterson believes conversations shouldn’t just be held between Black coaches and athletes or white coaches and athletes.

Patterson, who at Lockport coached the children of Aaron Salter Sr., a security guard killed trying to stop the shooter on Saturday, is now assistant track and field coach at Niagara Wheatfield, which is growing into one of the most diverse school districts in Western New York. The ability function as a team — such as a relay race — can translate into ordinary daily activities.

“Track is a very diverse sport. My relay teams are mixed with all types of kids,” Patterson said. “We have a common goal to work together and no matter the outcome, as long as we stick together, we’ll feel good about ourselves. Maybe we can teach some of the world that.”

Niagara Falls has attempted to incorporate racially diverse conversations through the Buffalo Bills and RISE, a non-profit organization that aims to “eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations.”

Since 2019, the football program has met with others in Western New York and it has enabled kids to discuss their differing backgrounds to gain a perspective previously unfamiliar.

A 2018 student survey conducted by RISE says athletes feel racism is still a concern and they are willing to address it. According to the survey, 92% of student-athletes feel racism is still a concern, while 84% feel an obligation to raise awareness to social justice and 73% are willing to attend programs focused on race, diversity and inclusion.

Athletes have a vital platform in the United States, including high school athletes. Bass believes it’s important for athletes to use their voices through action, social media or social status within the school.

“You want to make sure you’re doing it in a way that you’re not being condemned for what your beliefs are,” Bass said. “… You realize that this has gone on long enough and I’m going to take a stand. I encourage those who feel that way, regardless if I agree with what you say. If you’re going to stand up, I think it’s the American right to do that.”

Niagara Wheatfield basketball coach Erik O’Bryan believes sports can be a springboard to deeper conversations about racism and social injustice, but it must be talked about in classrooms to make the biggest impact on schools.

While O’Bryan can listen to a player’s fears and console them during a troubling time, he also knows that as a white coach, a player with a different ethnic background may not feel he has the same understanding of the problem posed.

“Where we could be more progressive and not wait for another tragedy is be more open to discussing it in schools and not be afraid of using the word racism in a lesson,” O’Bryan said. “I think maybe we need to start teaching in our curriculums what racism is. It could be about the Holocaust, slavery and all of these things. We could probably do a revamp of what our curriculum looks like when we’re discussing race.”

Nick Sabato can be reached via email at or on Twitter @NickSabatoGNN.

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