SALT LAKE CITY — On the basketball court, Nigel Williams-Goss was always a leader.
A former starter at both Washington and Gonzaga, Williams-Goss was the Zags’ starting point guard who averaged 16.8 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game while leading Gonzaga to the NCAA championship as a junior. He was drafted in the second round of the 2017 NBA draft by the Utah Jazz.
But on Thursday night, Williams-Goss showed a different kind of leadership. He accepted an open invitation to take the mic at a protest on Capitol Hill condemning racial injustice and police brutality without even mentioning that he was a professional basketball player. In the moment, he simply referred to himself as a 25-year-old black man with biracial roots; the son of a black father and a white mother.
Standing in front of the crowd sitting on the hill in front of the historic Salt Lake City Council Hall, as well as those spilled over trying to catch a glimpse or an earful of the latest rendition of the worldwide movement, Williams-Goss first said he believed it was the biggest group of people he’s seen come out to support the black community before addressing his feelings on police brutality and racism in America.
“It doesn’t matter how much money a black person has, the status they have, the car that they drive; when they see a black person, they see something inferior and that, my friends, is not right,” he said. “And as horrific as police brutality is, it goes so much further than that. Ahmaud Arbery was not killed by the police; he was killed, gunned down on film — on film — gunned down running down the street. That had nothing to do with the police. Are police a problem? Yes. But it goes so much further.”
The peaceful demonstration attracted about 2,000 people. It started on the steps of the Utah State Capitol before winding through the streets of downtown Salt Lake and returning to the place where it began late Thursday night.
“I’m not here to advocate for any felonies or anything like that, but what I am advocating for is accountability,” Williams-Goss continued. “Not just accountability with a certain race, not accountability for a certain gender, (but) accountability for everyone, including the police. And I stress to everyone here the importance of education, and not only educating yourselves but educating the next generation.”
After he spoke, he returned to the sea of people and listened to what other members of Utah's black community had to say. In addition to his current job as a basketball player, Williams-Goss is a graduate of Gonzaga University, and he’s just one class away from finishing a master’s degree in organizational leadership.
Williams-Goss wasn't the only speaker at the Salt Lake City rally, and people — especially those who don't follow sports — may not have even recognized him as a member of the Jazz. He's used to being in arenas where people cheer on his ability as an athlete. But this time, they were cheering for who he is even when he's not in uniform.
“I think it’s special you have people of all races, all genders all coming out to support a cause that’s greater than all of ourselves,” he told KSL.com after addressing the crowd. “I think, especially in a place like Utah that is predominantly white, it shows that everybody cares and everyone recognizes this is a real issue and something we need to come together to overcome.”
It's been more than a week since protests against George Floyd's death began. Even as four officers have been charged in that case, Williams-Goss said it was meaningful to him to continue to push the message about racial inequality in America.
It wasn’t the first time Williams-Goss has joined demonstrations in Salt Lake, where he’s played with the Jazz and its G League affiliate Salt Lake City Stars. He also spent time with protesters Wednesday: a group that started in Washington Square, marched to the Public Safety Building to kneel with a group of officers that included Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, and to the University of Utah for a rally that attracted more than a thousand.
Utah Jazz guard Nigel Williams-Goss (@NigelWG5) on the grounds this evening in Salt Lake City. After this term, he has one class left at Gonzaga to earn his master’s degree in Organizational Leadership. pic.twitter.com/LUY9KyCrbA— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 4, 2020
Still, Thursday was different. With the Capitol building serving as a backdrop and so many people filling the streets that traffic was halted on parts of State Street and 300 North, Williams-Goss didn’t just show his support; he voiced his opinion.
“I think that it’s just an important issue and something that has mattered to me probably more than anything in my life, and if I had one prayer or one hope it would be for equality,” he told KSL.com. “Now that I’m around a place that’s actively trying to contribute to that change, there’s no way I was going to miss out on it.”
The Jazz guard isn’t the only NBA player to be involved in the protests across the nation following the death of George Floyd under the watch of Minneapolis police. Former Weber State star Damian Lillard marched with protesters in Portland on Thursday evening, donning a teal mask as he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands downtown in the Rose City.
In a pre-taped video message for the NFL this week and posted on social media, football stars such as Odell Beckham Jr., Patrick Mahomes, Ezekiel Elliott and De’Andre Hopkins, to name a few, listed the names of black men and women who have been killed recently by violence, such as Floyd, Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner.
“What if I were George Floyd?” Mahomes asks in one part of the video.
The video also calls for the NFL to “admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting” and to “believe black lives matter.”
NBA journeyman Stephen Jackson was one of the first athletes to embrace the current round of protests, and did so without a second thought based on his friendship with Floyd. The friend he gave the nickname “twin” because of the duo’s similar appearance told ESPN’s Marc Spears that it’s a role he’s assumed with pride, too.
“How did I get this role?” Jackson said. “Like, I'm honest with you: I did not expect to have the role and to have so many people waiting to see what I have to say and what's the next move. Like, I didn't ask to be in this position, but I'm embracing it. I'm embracing it.”
Plenty of star athletes are embracing their role in social activism. It’s time for a change, many of them contend. It’s no longer time to “shut up and dribble,” or “stick to sports,” they say. It’s time for action.
It’s time for change.
“We’re in a position now due to the coronavirus where all eyes are on racism,” Williams-Goss said at Thursday’s rally in Salt Lake City. “All eyes are on police brutality, so let’s take this time, educate ourselves and then pass that education on … My hope is that we can get some legislation changes, then we can educate our future generation to love one another, to put your arm around a woman, a man, black, white, Hispanic — it doesn’t matter — and support them. Let them know that you love them.”
Contributing: Associated Press