Still Taking a Knee Against Racism

Athletes and activists who modeled themselves off Colin Kaepernick have continued their campaigns.

February 19, 2019
 
Canisius College volleyball players kneel to protest racism during a game.

In 2016, a silent protest, a knee to the ground, spurred a movement -- and set off a backlash -- that has lasted years.

Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, first took a knee during the National Anthem at a preseason game, a quiet demonstration against systemic racism and police brutality in the United States. The decision earned him years of condemnation, including from President Trump, who repeatedly called on National Football League team owners to stop the movement. During a campaign rally in 2017, Trump said, "Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”

But activists on campus noticed Kaepernick’s display, too.

Other NFL players followed his lead. It trickled down into the higher education sphere, where students -- both athletes and not -- and even professors, knelt, inspired by Kaepernick’s mission.

Two and a half years later, such protests have largely ceased. Few players still kneel in the professional league, and few students do. But often, those campus athletes have taken a small act and run with it, using the momentum and the attention from a controversial demonstration and channeling it into action.

Athletes interviewed by Inside Higher Ed said Kaepernick accomplished his goal: a conversation was started.

Around when the protests and the debate were at their peak last academic year, Alyssa Parker, a black woman, was a 19-year-old cheerleader at Buena Vista University, a college in rural Iowa affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, and a campus lacking in diversity -- only 3 percent of its student body was black in fall 2017, and 78 percent was white, according to federal data.

Parker had just helped organize a candlelight vigil for Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old black Texan who was shot by a police officer who was eventually found guilty of Edwards’s murder.

The episode struck Parker as a black woman because she had a younger brother. She wanted to do more. During Buena Vista’s homecoming football game, she and several of her friends she had contacted knelt during "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Little happened at the game, but in the days following, Parker said, she could not have anticipated the vitriol.

Calls poured into administrators from the public threatening to withhold donations. The media was frenzied, Parker said. She later met with the newly named president, Joshua D. Merchant, who seemed understanding of their cause -- he asked her, though, if there was any compromise, to which Parker answered, “None.”

“There is no compromise when it comes to black lives,” Parker said.

But Parker said she believed the outside pressures influenced Merchant, and the university banned kneeling during the anthem and said any athlete who did so would be disciplined and risk removal from the team. Merchant's compromise was that he would allow students to stand before the anthem and said in a statement (which has since been removed online) that he "promised to physically stand by [athletes'] side as a demonstration of support for their desire to impact social change."

Spokeswoman Kelsey Clausen said the university does not comment on details about students. She wrote in an email:

BVU respects our military members and our veterans. BVU also respects the rights of our students, employees, alumni, fans and friends to demonstrate their civil liberties in ways that are peaceful and lawful. As an institution of higher learning, BVU believes in open discourse. Through our conversations, BVU seeks to better understand our opinions and the opinions of those whose differ from our own. We ask that our community members respect one another through language and action.

Black athletes who want to protest are often dissuaded by their coaches and other officials, who want a certain level of control and want to avoid bad press, said Shaun Harper, a prominent race-relations consultant for colleges and executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center.

These administrators may not always directly prohibit the players from publicly showing support, but Harper said he has heard many stories of them insinuating to athletes they would lose their scholarships if they did.

This was common, Harper said, in 2015, after University of Missouri football players boycotted over racial issues and asked for the resignation of the system president Tim Wolfe, who eventually did step down. Athletes on other campuses wanted to back the team, but coaches especially tried to squash their efforts, Harper said.

“They want their student athletes the way they want them,” Harper said. “To, like, work out and play games and win games, nothing else.”

Buena Vista was not the only institution to try to limit the protests. East Carolina University and Colorado Christian University both publicly told students they needed to remain standing during the anthem. At East Carolina, the directive was made to members of the band with regard to performances during football games. And a former Kennesaw State University cheerleader sued the institution in September, alleging her First Amendment rights had been violated after she and four of her teammates took a knee during games. After the protests, four of the five cheerleaders were cut from the team when they tried out next season. The cheerleader’s lawsuit accuses administrators and a former state lawmaker of plotting to stop their demonstrations.

Following Buena Vista’s announcement, Parker remembered trying to decide what to do -- she wanted to pursue law school, so she couldn’t have a record of misconduct. She loved cheerleading, but didn’t want to stop her protest.

She typed up her resignation letter to her coach.

“Standing for something I know isn’t right shouldn’t be forced on me … Changing how this campus thinks about social injustice, helping people understand and moving this conversation forward is the type of thing I want to accomplish before I leave BVU,” Parker wrote in the letter.

The next game, when the anthem was played, Parker was in the stands, kneeling.

Parker’s stress levels were still high after that. She was interviewing with news media nearly every day, and she had become persona non grata on campus. She was well-known at this point (she had started a Black Student Union there, too) and couldn’t go to parties without “them basically stopping,” and her friends were guilty by association. A racial slur was written on her and her roommate’s door the day before final exams.

Ultimately, she transferred, leaving Buena Vista for Iowa’s capital, Des Moines, and Grand View University, a slightly larger, still religiously affiliated institution with a bit higher black population (7 percent as of 2017).

Parker said some questioned whether the university “won.” After all, she left. But she said the move was to preserve her mental health, and she hasn’t ended her activism. Students on the Grand View campus know her as “the girl who kneeled.” Administrators know her, too. The Iowa state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union gave Parker its Robert Mannheimer Student Advocacy Award for “remarkable contributions to civil liberties.”

She joined the Black Student Union at Grand View and has helped out with another group that takes young black girls to beauty supply stores and helps them pick products, do their hair and talk topics that will help them growing up: like sex education and the importance of college, Parker said.

“For me, it’s not over,” Parker said. “The problem is still here. The problem with protests and with people in our society is that they’re outraged for a second and then it dies down. You have to be consistent with your outrage; if you’re not consistent, you can’t expect change.”

One such athlete who has remained consistent is Marsha Howard, a senior and forward on the University of Wisconsin at Madison women’s basketball team. During the anthem, when the rest of her teammates line up and stand with their hands over their hearts, Howard stays seated on the sidelines. She does not look up. She bows her head in silent prayer, protesting gun violence and racism.

Howard, a Chicago native who declined an interview, has protested silently in some form since 2016, when she and several other black teammates locked arms during the National Anthem, ThinkProgress reported.

Last year, Howard sat out the anthem with another player, but to protect her family from the criticism that would inevitably be heaped on her, she did so in the tunnel to the stadium, so it wasn’t visible. This wasn’t feasible during one particular game last February, though, and Howard sat on the bench instead.

Her subdued showing nevertheless drew the ire of a U.S. senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, who directed in a tweet that the public should reach out to the university in “outrage.” ThinkProgress reported that the message attracted more indignation and detractors, but Howard was adamant she would continue her protest this year.

“Change doesn’t come overnight,” she told ThinkProgress. “So, as long as things are still the way they are, then yeah, I’ll continue to protest.”

Staffers at Wisconsin have overwhelmingly supported Howard. Jonathan Tsipis, head coach of the team, told the Chicago Tribune that the coaches backed protesting students and told them that they "would be asked why" they're demonstrating.

Students and administrators, though, have reported that the demonstrations have gone far in opening up the subject of racial inequities on campus.

One of the most recent displays was at the University of Notre Dame in November, when more than 100 students knelt during a football game and linked arms in prayer, singing “We Shall Overcome.” This was a reference to the institution’s history, when the university’s former president, Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, did the same with Martin Luther King Jr. at a civil rights rally in 1964.

At Canisius College, a Jesuit-founded institution in Buffalo, N.Y., a trio of volleyball players took a knee during the last academic year. Among them was Tamia Bowden, then a first-year student.

In one of her criminal justice courses, Bowden watched the documentary 13th, named for the 13th Amendment in the Constitution, which outlawed slavery. The filmmaker focuses on racial inequities and mass incarceration of people of color.

The movie, along with the fatal police shooting of Mike Brown, a black man in Ferguson, Mo., which was heavily protested by the Black Lives Matter movement, prompted Bowden to act.

She called her mother, an Army combat veteran who served in the Middle East, and told her she was thinking about kneeling. Much of the criticism around the protests of the anthem was that it was disrespectful display to veterans, but Bowden said her mother stood behind her.

Bowden also consulted with her coach, and during a game, she knelt.

Again, like with Buena Vista, the complaints rolled in, largely to the volleyball coach. The Buffalo News, the local newspaper, featured Bowden and two teammates and their protest in October 2017, which caused even more of a stir, Bowden said.

Bowden said she read the comments on the Buffalo News piece when it was first published.

There were calls for her scholarship to be revoked. There were death threats.

At one particular game versus Niagara University, when they knelt, a man was escorted out, screaming -- Bowden realized then the danger she and her teammates potentially faced. But they did not stop for the remainder of that season.

When the next season rolled around, the coach asked if she still wanted to continue -- but she didn’t, because Bowden said the message had been received.

Her peers had stopped to talk to her, sometimes for a brief chat about why she was kneeling, other times for more robust conversation. When the Buffalo News article ran, her journalism professor stopped class to call out Bowden, and the rest of the lecture was spent analyzing how the media portrayed the event and the protests writ large.

Bowden’s mother pushed her to do more between the summer of her freshman and sophomore years -- “if you do this, you actually have to be effective,” she told Bowden.

Bowden joined the local NAACP chapter and its Young Adults Committee and founded a campus group called the Marginalized Identity Support Team, or MIST, which holds events to promote different minority groups on campus, whether that be black men or women, or queer students, Bowden said.

And before every home game, in every sport, Canisius officials now read a statement, asking that spectators stand for silent reflection of “those whose lives are impacted by inequality and injustice in the world and how our actions can help us live the Jesuit ideal of being men and women for others,” according to associate athletics director and spokesman Matt Reitnour.

Reitnour said in an interview he has noticed more fliers going up around campus in support of minority students, which he links back to Bowden’s protest.

“I’ve been working here for 18 years,” Reitnour said. “And I’ve just noticed more … meetings, or groups or fliers. It’s rare to not see them anymore, covering various topics. There’s conversations that have been born out of this.”

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