St. Mike’s basketball speaks out after kneeling protest

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On November 4, six local basketball players joined a nationwide protest of racial oppression by taking a knee. Three weeks later, they’ve released a statement detailing their motives and the harsh response they received.

The St. Michael’s College men’s basketball team linked arms inside University of Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium before the national anthem played at an exhibition game. Six black Purple Knights kneeled, along with three white coaches. Head coach Josh Meyer was among them.

At least one black player remained standing, video footage from Seven Days shows.

A chorus of boos and orders to “stand up” descended on the players. In response, SMC athletic communications director Josh Kessler said the team “painstakingly crafted” a statement, released Monday.

“We took a knee to draw attention to the daily injustices that African Americans face due to the color of our skin,” the team wrote, using situations with police and fellow citizens, education system failures, negative images in mass media and a lack of employment opportunities as examples.

The “take a knee” movement began in fall 2016, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the anthem before a National Football League game to protest police violence against African Americans.

Since then, a wave of professional athletes have followed suit. The movement gained momentum this past September, when President Donald Trump took to Twitter and called on NFL owners to fire players who do not stand for the anthem.

Like many critics, Trump labeled kneeling as unpatriotic and disrespectful to the people of the United States, particularly military veterans.

TOP: Six black St. Michael’s College basketball players kneeled during the national anthem before their exhibition game against University of Vermont on November 4. Three white coaches, including head coach Josh Meyer, kneeled as well. The team released a statement on Monday detailing their decision. ABOVE: The Purple Knights are pictured in a team huddle during the Nov. 4 game. (Photos by James Buck)

But the St. Michael’s College players stated otherwise. They didn’t kneel to disrespect anyone, they said, but as a platform to start a conversation about racism — an issue that still permeates the lives of black Americans every day.

“We want to make it clear that the kneeling has nothing to do with the flag or the military,” they wrote. “We are proud citizens of the United States, and we love our country. We are also extremely appreciative of the sacrifices made by the women and men of our armed services.”

The men invite those who disagree to join the conversation and work toward a solution.

“This protest brings this issue to the forefront where we as a country can address it,” they wrote.

As others stood, the St. Michael’s players said they silently kneeled because they can’t “fully pay homage to a system that systematically disenfranchises us.”

Kneeling commonly shows humility in other platforms, they continued. In sports, when a player is injured, their fellow teammates and opponents kneel to “recognize someone’s misfortune.”

In church, worshipers kneel before God. The action says something without verbalization, they wrote.

St. Michael’s, a Division II team, saw a larger hometown crowd than usual on November 4, as they sparred with UVM, a D-I institute. Some of their critics in the stands shouted slurs, including “Go back to Africa,” they recalled. Others clapped, supporting their decision to peacefully protest.

“A lot of people might think our platform is too small, but that’s not the point,” they wrote. “We would have kneeled if there were 20 people in the stands or 2,000.”

The team has not kneeled since, according to Kessler. At St. Michael’s, where the team is often met with a small fan-base, the national anthem is only played before the first game of the night. During double-headers, the song sounds prior to women’s contests.

On November 15, the Purple Knights took to the court for their home opener. As the national anthem echoed in Ross Sports Center, the women’s team linked arms in solidarity.

As the men bring the conversation to the forefront, various community members are speaking out. The college’s campus climate committee applauded the individuals, thanking them for the “powerful peaceful protest” that showcased “the urgency of what we need to do.”

By taking a knee, the players simultaneously “signaled distress” and showed respect to the flag and countrymen, the committee wrote. St. Michael’s players said turning their back to the flag would be disrespectful.

Six days after the exhibition game, St. Michael’s president John Neuhauser issued a statement noting Americans’ right to politically protest in a peaceful manner, without infringing someone else’s right to expression.

Neuhauser recognized some people view kneeling as disrespectful but said he didn’t believe that was the players’ intention. The college wouldn’t endorse such aimed disrespect, he wrote.

Why the six players felt compelled to protest is cause for a deeper discussion, he added.

On September 27, men’s basketball senior Winston Jones II helped organize a freedom of speech protest on campus. By candlelight, attendees kneeled in solidarity with nationwide protests.

Recently, a conservative group formed on campus, aimed at giving a voice to right-leaning students at the small liberal arts school.

“We are left with a need to reconcile differing interpretations, differing beliefs, often different ways to express belief, as we seek to understand one another in a time that does not easily accommodate multiple beliefs or understandings,” Neuhauser wrote.

The U.S. is a “melting pot of all races, colors and creeds,” which all belong on American soil, the players wrote.

“We are all proud Americans who want to see change brought to certain situations, and we hope that protesting like we did helps bring about that change,” the players concluded.