Though the majority of the national coverage regarding athlete protests was dominated by the responses of NFL owners and the president this past weekend, several small colleges followed the blueprint set forth by Roger Goodell and Jerry Jones and took steps to silence athletes under the guise of promoting team unity.
The first attempt to remove athletes from visibly protesting in front of fans came at Kennesaw State, where five members of the cheerleading squad knelt during the anthem while it was played ahead of the football team’s game against North Greenville on Sept. 30.
Their actions were decried by Republican state representative Earl Ehrhart, who also happens to chair the committee that determines how much funding each Georgia public college receives. He was joined by Cobb County sheriff Neil Warren, who whined to the Marietta Daily Journal that his wife had a tear in her eye during the protest—not because of something humane or noble, like the sudden recognition of systemic oppression— but because the “ill-informed students” clearly needed to to “learn all that the flag truly represents.”
In response to the protest, Kennesaw State president Sam Olens—the former Republican state attorney general that was named president before the school even conducted a national search—reportedly told Warren in a one-on-one conversation that the protests “will not happen again.” The next week, the school decided to move the cheerleaders indoors during the playing of the anthem for the remainder of the season. The university, of course, masked it in flowery-smelling mask of bullshit, telling the AJC the move was done to “improve the fan experience” by giving the cheerleaders and the team mascot a more formal entrance after the anthem.
“We are always looking for ways to improve the fan experience,” he said. “As the season unfolds, we have made several changes including a better introduction of the mascot and cheerleaders to match what we do for the band.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a spokesperson for Kennesaw State said that the the university “believes that it is important to honor the national anthem. It is equally as important to respect the rights of individuals as protected under the First Amendment.”
While the Kennesaw State cheerleaders were locked inside team facilities on Saturday, another anthem was underway, this one coming at a D-III football game in Reading, Pa. where, according to a report from NBC10, Albright College backup quarterback Gyree Durante knelt for the anthem.
Durante had previously knelt during the anthem the week before, ahead of a game against King’s College. In the week between their win against King’s and their Oct. 7 blowout loss to Delaware Valley, Albright team officials enacted what they called a “team-wide decision” that dictated players would be allowed to kneel during the coin toss, but would be required to stand during the anthem. The college issued a press release saying this decision was merely “supported by the coaching staff,” rather than being one that was imposed upon them and then characterized as a democratic decision when the school started catching shit.
When Durante decided he would continue to take a knee in order to protest the social injustices faced by African-Americans in the police and judicial systems, Albright kicked him off the team. The school made the decision on Tuesday. It quite clearly did not seek to converse with him about his protest, and through its line-in-the-sand stance on it, actively discouraged him from pursuing the literal school slogan that’s been at the bottom of their website since 2003—“A Different Way of Thinking.”
The response by Albright’s football coach and spokesperson to Durante’s dismissal reveals that, like NFL owners and Kennesaw State’s president, Albright officials were quick to grow weary of the protests and attempted to steer the players into a form of protest that would make them and their ticket-buyers most comfortable. A team-wide knee during the coin toss fit the bill; a player making a personal, American decision in hopes that he would have the support of his university did not. Per the Reading Eagle:
“This action, which was supported by the coaching staff, was created as an expression of team unity and out of the mutual respect team members have for one another and the value they place on their differences,” she wrote. “It was established as a way to find common ground in a world with many differing views.”
“One football player, who unbeknownst to the coach and the team, chose not to support team unity and has been dismissed from the team,” she wrote. “He remains a valued member of the Albright College student body.”
“We trusted him throughout the week, after time and time again he told us he would stand,” Powell said. “When you can’t have a player on a team that you can trust, he’s got to go.”
Upon even a surface-level examination, both Durante and the “Kennesaw Five,” as they’re now being called, are protestors and college athletes that made active, thoughtful decisions on how to join the national conversation. They all expected a negative reaction from the public and their universities, but carried out their protests anyway, placing their beliefs ahead of diktats handed down by middle-aged, white university administrators attempting to save face.
“At some point in life, there’s going to be a time when you’ve got to take a stand,” said Gyree Durante. “For me it just happened to be on Saturday afternoon.”
“I was just taught you fight for what you believe in and you don’t bow to anyone,” Durante said. “I believe heavily in this. So I decided to fight for it.”
Likewise, the Kennesaw Five spent weeks discussing whether they would join the protest with friends and family members before going through with it. In interviews, they wanted to be clear that the decision was not one of anti-American or anti-veteran sentiment, but one firmly planted in snuffing out the racism that persists in the military, on their college campuses, in their hometowns, and in their nation.
“So I feel as though it was nothing that was meant to disrespect America, which is the reason why, when we took the knee, we still made it a point to have our hands on our hearts,” Young said. “But we just wanted to take the knee in the name of equality.”
As was the case with Kaepernick and the dozens of NFL players that followed suit, the biggest opposition came from those who chose not to listen the insights of black athletes; not coincidentally, that opposition found itself rooted in the leadership of both the local police departments as well as the leadership of the schools. The same ones that allowed a Cobb County cop to retire after telling a white woman scared to reach for her phone during a traffic stop that “We only kill black people,” and the same ones at Albright that would take just two days to boot Durante from the football team but five days to suspend a white student that donned blackface and the name “Carlisha” and proceeded to lampoon African-Americans and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Per their most recent interviews, neither Durante or the Kennesaw Five have changed their minds about protesting, which is heartening to hear. The reality of the entire situation, however, is anything but—state-funded school presidents, county sheriffs, and state representatives, all Republican in this case, are actively using their power to make a rash of political decisions aimed at silencing those that choose to use their platform to speak out on important, unnerving matters. It has nothing to do with these specific people, but more about the power dynamics and total disregard for either democratic governance or individual expression that makes the cases at Kennesaw and Albright such dangerous precedents. If and when these protests start to regularly appear on Power Five teams, expect the same response, because now the people in power have a step-by-step guide on how to shut their unruly players up. And no matter how much I tell myself the protestors won by simply making their protests national stories, ultimately, I know that it’s the casualness of the leadership’s dismissal of these protests and not the content or intention of the protests themselves that will speak louder to college presidents around the nation.