College Athletes Speak Out

Student-athletes are using their platform to call out racial injustices as schools struggle with how to respond

Long-time bastions of free expression and social justice, colleges and universities have recently — and not surprisingly — found themselves at the center of another nationwide debate over free speech, this time regarding athletes’ right to protest societal injustices. Ignited in fall 2016 by then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began taking a knee during the singing of the national anthem at NFL games to protest racial injustice and police brutality in the U.S., this cause has been taken up by college athletes eager to shine a light on issues they otherwise feel powerless to confront.

And while this cause and the move by student-athletes to support it may seem new, according to Ellen Staurowsky, EdD, a professor of sports management at Drexel University, they are not.

“In the span of college sports history, we’ve had protests that have gone back decades and taken a variety of forms,” she says. “In the 1960s there were vibrant protests around race issues, around the oppression of athletes’ rights at colleges and universities. So this is not the first time we’ve seen college athletes protest, and it’s not the first time we’ve seen [them] elect to express concerns about what is going on … in the country more broadly.”

Nationally, many sports commentators, fans, veterans, and even President Donald Trump himself have weighed in on the recent protests by professional athletes — Trump stating that NFL owners should fire any “son of a b—-” who kneels during the anthem. Yet Americans are deeply divided on the issue: In a CNN poll, 49 percent of respondents said athletes kneeling during the anthem are doing the “wrong thing” to express their opinions, while 43 percent said they are doing the “right thing”; 8 percent said they don’t know or are undecided.

In higher education, the protests have included athletes kneeling, raising a fist, or locking arms during the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” And institutions’ and coaches’ reactions to the movement have been as varied as students’ demonstrations.

At Albright College, three football players were kicked off the team after kneeling during the anthem at an Oct. 7 game; the school, however, later offered to reinstate them. In Missouri, the College of the Ozarks instituted a policy called “No Pledge, No Play,” which states that all athletes and coaches — including their opponents — will stand during the national anthem or the college’s teams won’t play — a decision that led the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to change the location of the 2018 Men’s Division II Basketball Championship.

“In my view, one either subscribes to academic freedom or [doesn’t],” says Staurowsky, who is an internationally recognized expert on social justice issues in sport, including college athletes’ rights. “As hard as it may be to hear a variety of viewpoints, there is a high premium placed on the freedom to express those views. So to limit them, I think, would be to undermine the very essence of what colleges and universities are all about.”

At UCLA, however, the response to such protests has been one of support.

[Above: Members of the UCLA Bruins women’s soccer team kneel at a game prior to the singing of the national anthem.]

When Kaiya McCullough approached head coach of the UCLA women’s soccer team Amanda Cromwell about kneeling during the national anthem at the Bruins’ Sept. 28 game, Cromwell didn’t hesitate.

Amanda Cromwell
Amanda Cromwell

“[She] approached me that Sunday. It was after things had kind of blown up; Trump had said some things to really put more gasoline on the fire, so to speak, and that weekend you saw a lot of NFL teams kneel or stand in solidarity,” says Cromwell. “[McCullough said she] had been thinking about it since last year, and it just got to the point that she had to kneel; it wasn’t even a choice for her anymore. She wanted to see if I would support it and if the team would support it. I said, ‘absolutely.’”

With two veterans on staff, Cromwell says that not everyone was on the “same page” in terms of how to show solidarity, but they discussed what to do as a team and came to a decision.

“[McCullough] voiced the reasons why she felt like she had to do it, and I think it was important [for the team to] hear the ‘why’ behind it,” explains Cromwell. “I didn’t want to make it uncomfortable for anybody, so we talked about it and came up with something that everyone could support. We came to the conclusion that we really liked what the Dallas Cowboys did on that Sunday; they all came out and locked arms and kneeled together before the anthem, and then those who wanted to remain kneeling could, and those who wanted to stand for the anthem could.”

This collaborative approach is the one the team has taken since its Sept. 28 game. “In the end, [this] is what it’s about,” Cromwell adds. “Everyone’s not always going to agree on every issue, but you have to have the heart to be open and the mind to listen.”

For McCullough — who says she was “overwhelmed” by how much love and support her team, and the administration, showed her — this type of understanding is something that she hopes spreads beyond UCLA’s campus.

Kaiya McCullough
Kaiya McCullough

“Because I identify as a black woman, it’s hard to miss the things that are going on in the country and in the world, specifically in America against black lives. It’s important that we look outside of ourselves and understand that people are going through these things,” McCullough explains. “I think a lot of the problems are coming from the fact that we’re not really understanding each other’s experiences; we’re not addressing the issue head-on.”

Despite all the support she’s received, McCullough isn’t ignorant of the fact that she could have experienced, and may still experience, backlash. “Whenever you’re standing up for something and trying to make change, there are going to be people who don’t want you to,” she says, adding, however, that she thinks the comments being made by those opposed to athletes’ protests “are not coming from a place of hatred, but from a place of ignorance.”

Cromwell agrees, adding that those who disagree are not seeing the big picture. “The people who don’t want to give the actual subject matter the attention, they’re trying to divert it to being about the military and [being] disrespectful, but that’s not what it’s about,” she says. “It is about giving attention to the issues at hand — racial equality and racial justice.”

On a national level, some — including Trump — have argued for policies that require professional athletes to stand during the national anthem and that punish those who don’t. While some teams and organizations have done so, colleges and universities have been more reluctant to implement such guidelines. Instead, most have dealt with situations individually. In some instances, schools have required that athletes who want to kneel do so in the locker room or in the tunnel leading to the field, and in the most severe cases, like at Albright College, students have been cut from teams.

However, in the case of the College of the Ozarks, the institution’s “No Pledge, No Play” policy now makes it mandatory that student-athletes at the private, Christian college stand during the national anthem. “We want to make it clear that we are not going to participate in a game where we think disrespect for the national anthem or the flag is being displayed,” President Jerry C. Davis told The Kansas City Star. “I don’t think it’s a partisan issue. It’s an American issue, how we feel about our country.”

Staurowsky, on the other hand, argues that student-athletes’ actions are not coming from a place of disrespect for the American flag or the country.

“I don’t want to discount the level of passion that people have for the flag and for what it means to them, but at the same time, flags are a symbol that can mean many things to many different people,” says Staurowsky. “Honoring the flag can be expressed in different ways. Genuflecting is … a sacred gesture and one of the least confrontational that you can make.”

She believes that much of the way in which institutions are reacting to these protests is based on their perspective regarding the rights of student-athletes.

“There [are] some people who say very adamantly that because participating in college sports is not a right, but a privilege, that [students] give up some of their rights by being a member of a team, and as a result, there may be justification for disciplining players if they step outside the bounds of certain forms of conduct,” Staurowsky explains. “The argument on the other side is that simply because an athlete is competing on a team, that should not strip them of their rights as citizens and students.”

Although the long-standing debate around student-athletes’ rights is not likely to be resolved any time soon, Cromwell is quick to point out that they are expected to use their position for other less contentious — and, one could argue, less urgent — matters.

“I know sometimes people disagree with athletes using their platform, but they want us to use it when it’s [for] raising money or doing other things,” says Cromwell. “We need to be able to use our platform for social injustices as well and [calling] out [issues] in our country that need to have a spotlight on them.”

Beyond the field or court, these young people want to “have a meaningful impact on the world around them,” Staurowsky adds. “They’re people too, and they have great aspirations, many of them, and want to contribute to these discussions. I think we owe it to them to make sure that they have that chance.”

The Bruins women’s soccer team at UCLA, for example, has gotten involved in other ways, taking its acknowledgement of social and racial injustices a step further by working to remedy them. “We already do community service and things like that,” explains Cromwell, “but we’ve talked about being more intentional, like [assisting] inner-city families or doing clinics — which we’ve already done with the Los Angeles Police Department. So it’s a matter now of putting action behind the peaceful protest, bringing more attention and trying to help each other as a community.”

Cromwell believes that until every American takes time to listen to and acknowledge the injustices that athletes are protesting, the kneeling will continue. Staurowsky agrees, adding that the reason so many avoid the topic is that there is something “that maybe they don’t want to admit to.”

For McCullough, student-athletes’ right to protest is not only a freedom afforded by the First Amendment, but is also a critical part of their education.

“Students should be able to speak their minds and stand up for things that are important to them,” she says. “That’s why we’re going to college. We’re going to get educated and to prepare ourselves to enter the real world.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.