Dabo Swinney defends himself amid criticism, says he 'wholeheartedly supports Black Lives Matter'

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney has been the subject of criticism over the last week or so, so he released a nearly 14-minute video in an effort to address those criticisms. 

First, Swinney addressed an incident that occurred at a Clemson practice in 2017 between assistant coach Danny Pearman and D.J. Greenlee, who played at Clemson from 2013-17. The incident was brought to the public eye by another former player, Kanyon Tuttle, who tweeted that Swinney “allowed a coach to call a player the N-word during practice with no repercussions.”

Tuttle’s tweet came on the heels of Swinney’s Monday media teleconference in which he addressed the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the subsequent protests and unrest around the country. Greenlee confirmed to The State newspaper that Pearman did use the n-word, but Pearman, who has since apologized, did not call him that word. 

“Me and the coach got into it and I was speaking with one of my teammates. He heard me use the n-word basically, and basically tried to correct me by saying the n-word back,” Greenlee told The State. “He wasn’t saying that I was a n-word.”

Swinney, who has been heavily criticized for his responses to social issues in the past, offered further clarification and said he would “fire a coach immediately if he called a player an n-word,” but that was “absolutely not” what happened in this particular instance. 

Swinney explained that Pearman, who coaches tight ends, and Greenlee were doing a drill. Greenlee made a mistake, Swinney said, and Pearman was “correcting” him. 

“I think another player was talking to D.J. or D.J. was talking to another player and D.J., you know, just kind of said something he probably shouldn’t have said,” Swinney said. “He said, ‘I blocked the wrong f---ing n-word’ and Coach Pearman thought he was saying it to him and he was mad and he reacted and he basically, in correcting him, repeated the phrase.

“He said, ‘We don’t say we blocked the wrong f---ing n-word.’ He repeated it and he shouldn’t have done that. There’s no excuse for even saying that. It doesn’t matter what the context is. But there is a big difference. He did not call someone an n-word.”

Swinney said the incident did not take place “in front of the whole team” and he did not “know anything about it” at first. Later on, Greenlee spoke to Swinney about it and Swinney spoke to Pearman. Swinney said Pearman was “profusely apologetic.”

Pearman has been on Swinney’s staff since he got the head-coaching job in 2008. Coincidentally, so has Greenlee’s father, Larry Greenlee. The elder Greenlee is Clemson’s strength coach. Swinney said the matter was handled internally and wasn’t something that was “swept under the rug.”

“This particular player, D.J., I’ve known him his entire life. Coach Pearman’s known him his entire life. He brought this to me in private, told me what happened. I met with Coach Pearman. He was profusely apologetic and he told me exactly the same thing. He also consulted with Coach [Woody] McCorvey on it. We moved on. Coach Pearman apologized and we moved on,” Swinney said.  

“This player’s dad, we have worked together going on 18 years. He’s been my strength coach for 12 years. The Greenlee family, they’re family. There wasn’t anything swept under the rug. There wasn’t some dirty secret. We handled it head-on. Forgiveness and grace is important for any of us. I’ve known Danny Pearman for 30 years, and he’s a good man. He’s had incredible relationships with his players. This was totally out of character. We dealt with it, and we moved on.”

Swinney: ‘I wholeheartedly support Black Lives Matter’

Over the weekend, Swinney posed for a photo with some fans wearing a shirt that says “football matters” on it. Some thought the choice to wear that shirt was inappropriate during a time when so many Black Lives Matter protests are taking place across the country in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. 

Swinney said it’s a shirt he’s had for “a couple of years” after it was given out to coaches by the National Football Foundation.

“That’s been their promotional thing, I think, since all the way back in 2014,” Swinney said. 

Swinney said that those who believed he was mocking Black Lives Matter with that shirt were attacking his character. 

“Any insinuation that I was trying to mock the Black Lives Matter movement is just an attack on my character and really sad,” Swinney said. “I also will say that I wholeheartedly support Black Lives Matter. In fact, I don’t quite think that’s adequate enough. I think black lives significantly and equally matter. To me, Black Lives Matter is just like, ‘Hey we matter, too.’ I think black lives significantly and equally matter.”

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney speaks during a news conference for the College Football Playoff national championship game in New Orleans. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Swinney says he did not say n-word

On Saturday, former Clemson player Haamid Williams accused Swinney of saying the n-word several times while criticizing players for their choice of music. Williams, on Twitter, said the team had music playing when the program’s prospective hire for defensive backs coach, Mike Reed, was touring the locker room. 

Williams said Swinney “walked into the meeting room” and said, “I don’t want to walk in the locker room with guests/future coaches hearing n---a this, n---a that in our house.” In his video message, Swinney said that characterization is “absolutely false.”

“I was hiring Mike Reed, who is now my DBs coach and has been since 2012, and was touring around and we were down there by the locker room. There was music blaring and literally every other word was the n-word,” Swinney said. “It was disappointing and I was embarrassed, especially with Coach Reed and walking him around. So we had a team meeting and what was said this week is absolutely false. The player who was playing the music, he called me this week saying, ‘This is crazy. This is an absolute lie.’ And I said, ‘I know.’ Anyway, I stood before the team and said I don’t want to hear that word. I’m trying to walk a coach around, and I’m hearing the n-word over and over again. Never did I repeat that word.”

Swinney denies another allegation

In addition to recalling the incident involving Greenlee and Pearman, Tuttle said on Twitter that Swinney discouraged players from participating in an on-campus sit-in to “limit distractions.” Tuttle said Swinney should “stop protecting [his] brand and take a stand.”

Swinney said that was not true. He said he was trying to make sure his players, most of whom are high-profile members of the Clemson community, were fully informed before participating in something. 

“I would never tell someone that they could not go participate in something they believe in or exercise their basic right. I would never do that,” Swinney said. “But as a coach, our job is to teach, to educate, to protect, to inform. 

“I stood in front of the team and the only thing I said was, ‘If you’re going to participate, make sure you know what you’re signing up for. Make sure you know what the agenda and message is because you’re not going to be Johnny Joe the student and go over there and just blend in. If you go over and participate, you need to be prepared to be on the news and on ESPN and so forth because of who you are. Make sure that it’s something you really know what you’re getting involved with.’ ”

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