National anthem protests raise questions nationally, within UWRF football team
Falcon News Service
December 13, 2017
This story won second place in sports reporting in the 2018 Collegiate Better Newspaper Contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association Foundation. Read more
“The only way you can ever bring change is to make people uncomfortable.”
Ugel George said that about social change after playing football for UWRF this past season. George is from the U.S. Virgin Islands and grew up in an all-black neighborhood, which is a much different background from the majority of students at UWRF. He has a strong stance concerning racial equality, specifically the topic of national anthem protests that have been a mainstay in the media this fall.
This issue was important enough that it reached all the way down to football players at UWRF at the Division III level. Head coach Matt Walker met with a selected group of players comprised of captains, military members and players of different backgrounds to try to reach a team consensus on how to tackle the issue.
“I think the biggest thing is being open-minded,” senior football player Jason Caballero said. “It’s important to see everyone’s viewpoints. You don’t have to agree with it, but to have a better world, it’s about making an attempt, and then we can try to find a common ground.”
The Falcons took into account the fact that the majority of protests at the point they discussed it were being directed at President Trump and not the original message. They also weighed the effects it could have as a distraction and what effect it could have at the Division III level compared to the national platform NFL players have.
“We had a good conversation and made a really unified decision,” sophomore football player Freedom Hunt said. “We weighed causing more conflict versus people feeling left out, and the team decided to stand up during the anthem.”
Hunt is an active member of the U.S. Army, but he doesn’t see the kneeling protests as any disrespect toward the flag and understands the meaning behind the action. This idea of disrespect toward the flag and national anthem has been one of the key points in the debate about the decision to kneel. Vice President Mike Pence even left an Indianapolis Colts game in October after players kneeled during the anthem.
However, George didn’t feel like the decision to only involve leaders or captains in the initial conversation was the best way to handle the situation. He said there was never a meeting with the entire team where they openly discussed their opinions with everyone.
“Some people felt like their opinion spoke for the team,” George said. “But I can’t speak for you, and you can’t speak for me. We have different upbringings and experiences for the way that I feel.”
George said that some of the efforts to neutralize the meaning of the protest or downplay it because it is disrespectful shouldn’t be upheld. Nobody, he said, will be able to see that there needs to be a change until people are talking and feel uncomfortable about a topic.
“You’re uncomfortable with me taking a knee during the national anthem because it means something to you,” George said. “Well I’m uncomfortable with living in a country where my skin color is deemed as dangerous.”
George said that there were thoughts about individuals wanting to take a knee, but they ultimately decided to follow the rest of the team’s lead and continue to stand.
The nationwide debate began with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem at the beginning of the 2016-2017 season. Kaepernick made it clear he was protesting against police brutality toward minorities and for racial equality.
While there was limited participation from athletes last season, the number steadily rose throughout the preseason and early weeks of the regular season, with about 25 players kneeling or waiting in the locker room during the national anthem to follow Kaepernick’s protest.
However, the number rose to over 150 NFL players early this season when President Trump challenged the athletes, claiming they disrespect the flag with their actions and that they should be fired. Close to 20 team demonstrations also took place in week three, but the number of people continuing to protest has dwindled drastically in recent weeks, with less than a dozen players committed to continuing the cause.
“The major issue with this whole effort is it’s distorted from what (Kaepernick) aimed,” said Sam Gale, a history professor who teaches a course in sports history at UWRF. “It was to draw attention to racial injustice and conflicts with law enforcement and the African-American community.”
Gale said the narrative has now changed to a protest of the military, the flag, soldiers, the national anthem and Trump. Gale said it’s critical to get the focus back on the original message and not the lost meaning it currently has.
Caballero doesn’t agree with the notion that taking a knee is distracting and a radical way to protest.
“It’s not very disruptive and it’s a silent protest,” Caballero said. “I’m expressing my freedom of speech, yet at the same time I’m not disrespecting anyone.”
According to CDR data for UWRF, only 1.7 percent of students at the university in 2016-2017 were African American. However, the NCAA sports ethnicity breakdown for 2016-2017 showed that 10.7 percent of football players at UWRF are African American. With the increase in players on the football team from the Las Vegas area this season, the number is even higher in 2017 for athletes of color. This has led to even more voices in the locker room with differing backgrounds and experiences.
Walker and the team also had a large meeting to discuss their unified stance. He left the opportunity open for players to meet with him individually if there were more comments or concerns on their stance. Caballero said one of the main goals was to keep as a family, even if they don’t always agree on each other’s views.
The athletic department didn’t have much to comment about the topic, said interim Athletic Director Crystal Lanning. “Our football coaches and players have talked about these issues in-house as a team, and the department has supported this route.”