On Sept. 1, 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines by deciding to kneel rather than stand during the National Anthem prior to an NFL preseason game.
Motivated by his anger with rampant police brutality and systematic oppression of people of color in the United States, Kaepernick’s protest gained widespread attention, both positive and negative. Despite the fact that Kaepernick originally decided to kneel after a conversation with a retired Green Beret, some condemned Kaepernick’s actions as being disrespectful towards American veterans. Many athletes followed Kaepernick’s lead, provoking a new dialogue on the role of activism in sports.
“I’m all for people [kneeling],” says student and men’s basketball player Isaiah Pean, ‘21. “It’s a great way for people to express themselves and spread awareness about inequalities in America.”
Characterized by its liberal history and multitude of activist groups, SLC is no stranger to hard conversations about topics like racism and other oppressions. The college boasts a rich history of political involvement, including sit-ins, marches, and strikes for equality both within the campus and greater Yonkers community.
For athletes, sideline activism is a form of personal expression that cannot be encompassed by box scores and stat lines.
“It lets fans know that young people know about the political climate and have their own opinions,” said Pean. Currently, he is unsure whether or not he will be kneeling this upcoming basketball season because he feels his kneeling wouldn't "compare to Kaepernick." He will, however, continue to support both his teammates and athletes around the nation who do so. “It’s great,” confirms Pean. “It’s a shame the way some people have reacted.”
Like Pean, Lauren Ashby, ‘21, also believes that activism has a place in the world of athletics, even at the college level. “[Activism] sparks a political dialogue,” she says. “It’s a conversation that needs to be had.” A forward on the women’s soccer team, Ashby says members of the team have kneeled in three different games, after talking about it as a team.
While not every player took part in the demonstration, the main takeaway from the conversation was unity and respect within the team. “Every [player] made their own decision whether to kneel or stand,” said Ashby. “We all held hands.”
The conversation was facilitated by a team captain and coach Maurizio Grillo. While Ashby claims Grillo was supportive of the team’s decision to kneel, he was also adamant about learning the players’ intentions for their protest.
“[Grillo] wanted to make sure we were kneeling for a reason,” says Ashby. “Not to follow a fad.”
Afterwards, the team notified Gryphons athletic director Kristin Maile, who would likely be the one to diffuse any backlash from the greater community.
“We wanted to give [Maile] our statement of support,” says Ashby. Although many athletes at all levels have received threats for their political activism, Ashby says so far the team hasn’t faced any serious retaliation.
While the soccer team may have established their own views on first amendment advocacy on the field, Ashby admits that even at a school as politically involved as SLC, students can often leave their political activism at the campus.
“There’s a lot of talk... but not always action,” says Ashby.
At a school where social justice and advocacy is so highly regarded, students often may not think about their own activism once they are no longer in reach of the college -- but for student athletes, whose influence can often transcend their own campus, this activism can come at both a high risk and reward.
Bella Rowland-Reid '21