I’ve spent a lot of time not wanting to write something like this.
Not wanting to write about race because I felt I was either not good enough to do it, not black enough to do it, or both. Sometimes I feel like an Uncle Tom because I’m not outward with my views on race among my friend group, which is almost exclusively white. Did I betray my race and those who came before me because of the people I surround myself with? Does kowtowing to my friends in order to not appear like the “Angry Black Man” diminish my blackness?
These are things I reckoned with after years of letting the black jokes roll off. I didn’t feel like arguing or lecturing. I should have stood up when people told me things like, “You talk white,” or, “No, it’s nigga, not nigger, and they say it in the song,” or, “You’re black, but not really black.”
I let that persist. That is my fault. That is my shame. I should have the courage to stand up for what I believe is right, no matter the cost and no matter the stage.
That’s what happened last weekend in Michigan and Illinois. College football players mixed some politics into your game.
The movement is continuing to grow. More & more players are kneeling during National Anthem. Three Huskers tonight pic.twitter.com/8WCv3oBmKW— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 24, 2016
Brendan Quinn of MLive.com found “at least seven” Michigan players with their fists up, including “Jourdan Lewis, Mike McCray, Khalid Hill, David Dawson, Channing Stribling, Devin Bush and Elysee Mbem-Bosse.”
For Michigan State, those young men are Delton Williams, Gabe Sherrod, and Kenney Lyke.
For Nebraska, they are Mohamed Barry, DaiShon Neal, and Michael Rose-Ivey.
Unlike in the NFL, most college football teams are not on the field when “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played pregame. They aren’t at my alma mater, the University of Florida, and they aren’t at Nebraska home games either. Rose-Ivey and his Nebraska teammates saw a rare opportunity on the road at Northwestern to make this type of statement. They acted.
Maybe you see it as young men putting political issues front and center for millions of people to see, but here’s the thing: that’s the point.
If you’re white, you don’t look in the mirror and see what I do. I see the minority, I see different, I see abnormal. I know many men and women who share my complexion feel marginalized and like their voices aren’t heard, because #AllLivesMatter is the response when they try to get you to listen to why their black life matters. I don’t have the option of not thinking about race, because when I look in the mirror, what stares back at me is not the cultural norm.
Sherrod, No. 89 for Michigan State, looked in the mirror Saturday morning, knowing what he and his teammates were going to do during the national anthem.
Time to represent this movement publicly!! Our lives matter too and even us privileged college students fear for our lives around the police— Gabe Sherrod (@ges88_) September 20, 2016
Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis, No. 26, had this to say to reporters after the game.
"The current events right now going on, I just followed their lead. It is injustice here in the country that we see and we've got to take notice of it," he said. "That's really what it is. There's no disrespect to the country or anything, but it is injustice."
I would imagine the players at both Michigan schools saw the pictures of the Eastern Michigan campus in Ypsilanti. It’s 10 minutes away from Ann Arbor and just over an hour from East Lansing.
Perhaps when they woke up Saturday morning, they saw what happened after Eastern Michigan’s win on Friday. A group marched arm-in-arm, peacefully, across the gridiron to deliver a message. I hope it gave the players power, and I hope it helped fuel their voice, because that’s what it did for me. Speaking up in smaller settings about race may always be a challenge for me, but my silence is far worse than my speech.
If those players somehow missed what happened at EMU, this summer alone gave them plenty of things to chew on. The deaths of Keith Lamont Scott, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Terence Crutcher at the hands of law enforcement in the last four months could not have gone unnoticed.
As men in our late teens and early 20s, processing and responding to these stories is an integral part of our maturation. Especially when we see prominent figures in the black sports community doing so as well and black men dying over menial offenses, if even offenses at all, at the hands of men and women who took an oath to protect us.
The Wolverines players made their statement in contrast to what their coach had said he thinks.
In the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s initial protests, Jim Harbaugh made this comment on Kaepernick, a player he drafted and coached with the San Francisco 49ers:
Jim Harbaugh on Colin Kaepernick: "I acknowledge his right to do it. But I don't respect the motivation or the action."— Kyle Rowland (@KyleRowland) August 29, 2016
He also attempted to clarify what he meant.
I apologize for misspeaking my true sentiments. To clarify, I support Colin's motivation. It's his method of action that I take exception to— Coach Harbaugh (@CoachJim4UM) August 29, 2016
He walked that back even more, once black men on his team used their platform to deliver a message. He addressed the protests Saturday after Michigan’s win.
I hope his opinion truly has evolved. The cynic in me knows he spends the bulk of his year trying to get black kids to come play football for him and that criticizing a player is not a good look. His tenure is overwhelmingly hinged on the performance of unpaid black athletes.
Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio voiced support for his players to the media after the game.
“We're in college, our young people are in college. And I can promise you one thing – that when the flag is presented in some respect, I guess it becomes much more important now. It's not just, ‘Oh, by the way, here is the Star Spangled Banner.’ I guess they have decisions that people have to make. And as long as it's done in a peaceful way, this is America. And that's what the flag stands for. It stands for that freedom to do what you need to do. And that's the beautiful thing about this country.”
Nebraska coach Mike Riley also supported his players in their protest.
“Michael approached me about it and wanted to talk to the team,” coach Mike Riley said. “And so we set a time [Saturday] morning — after one of our walk-throughs — so he could explain to the team. I didn't know anybody else was going to do it, but that's OK. This is obviously a choice they have made for personal reasons and that's the beautiful thing about the United States that they can do that.”
Again, I hope that’s truly how these coaches feel.
What those players conveyed with raised fists and bent knees was power: black power. It fills me with pride to see young men rise up and say, “No, you will pay attention to the message we have to share, and we will insert it into your favorite leisure activity just to drive the point home.”
For once, black college football players are the ones controlling the narrative on game day, not the white men who coach their teams and dictate their actions.
Here’s what Harbaugh and so many others have missed.
Such statements must come during the national anthem, because that flag and “The Star Spangled Banner” land differently for the minority than they do for the majority. Francis Scott Key owned slaves. In direct reference to slaves who fled their masters to fight for the British in the War of 1812, the third verse of the poem that became the national anthem reads in part like this:
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight and the gloom of the grave; And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave!
While I believe in the positive ideals inherent to both the flag and the anthem, I don’t always see them being put into practice. I don’t feel like this is the land of the free when every potential interaction with the police engineers fear. I don’t see bravery in gunning down someone in the street, then being protected by a badge.
If you’re less concerned about “KKK” written in red, white, and blue than you are about those young men silently protesting in the presence of the red, white, and blue, you are the problem.
People who swear by the values represented in the song use the flag as a shield while they wound their fellow Americans physically or verbally. They have the audacity to ridicule those who don’t see the flag as they do, and they do not care to wonder why.
Rose-Ivey knows that ridicule all too well.
He delivered a statement to the media Monday:
The statement, transcribed via Hail Varsity, hits hardest here:
Those that are continuously told it is their fault that their problems exist, that only if they do better, they will have better. That if you just pull up your pants, etcetera etcetera, you can fill in your own ‘what if.’ But it’s not so simple. It’s not so clear. I can say that with confidence because even though I have done better, even though I am a college graduate, even though I am blessed and fortunate to play football at the highest level and one of the most prestigious schools in college football, even though I am a healthy being and I am fully conscious, I have still endured racism. I was still referred to on Facebook and Twitter as a clueless, confused nigger by former high school classmates, friends, peers and even Husker fans.
Some believe DaiShon, Mohamed and myself should be kicked off the football team, while some said we deserved to be lynched or shot like the other black people that have died recently. Another believed if we didn’t want to stand for the anthem, we should be hung before the anthem before the next game. These are actual statements we received from fans. People just assume this is just Internet talk but I can tell you from my own experience from this institution and visiting other college campuses over the last four years that racism is a problem that must be addressed. I can’t tell you the numerous amounts of times I’ve heard the N-word shout at teammates and myself from behind opposing benches. Freshman year, I remember going to a frat party and being told niggers aren’t allowed in the house. We were escorted out several minutes later by security officers.
People want athletes like DaiShon, Mohamed and myself to remain silent and just play football. However, we cannot ignore what we’ve lived.
If you wonder about the risk these athletes take by speaking out, listen to Rose-Ivey describe the hatred and vitriol. A person believes these young men should be publicly lynched in front of 70,000 people because they kneeled during the national anthem. Let that sink in, and then wonder why these statements need to be made.
Read what a Nebraska regent had to say in response to the players’ protest:
Regent Hal Daub of Omaha, who served two years in Korea during the Vietnam War-era, and a former Omaha mayor, said in an interview that student-athletes at NU “are not supposed to do things that create disparagement or negative implications.”
“It’s a free country,” Daub told the Journal Star on Tuesday. “They don’t have to play football for the university either.
"They know better, and they had better be kicked off the team," he added. "They won’t take the risk to exhibit their free speech in a way that places their circumstance in jeopardy, so let them get out of uniform and do their protesting on somebody else’s nickel."
That is the attitude of a representative near the top of the university’s ladder (school president Hank Bounds later expressed support for the players’ free speech). What kind of message does this send to black men considering coming to Lincoln to play football? It shows that you are to be seen and not heard. That you have your place in the system, and it’s not to use your voice, it’s to score touchdowns. That’s what entrenched power has to say when its feelings get hurt and its tree gets shaken.
I’m the son of two immigrants, and this country is as much mine as it is yours.
As Rose-Ivey so aptly quoted the essayist James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
The issues within race relations in this country do not just go away when we kick a ball, whether we’d like them to or not. Sports are not an oasis devoid of racial inequalities. I am still black. Those young men are still black. And their skin tone and what it represents will still matter whether a game is going on or not.
While you want to enjoy your sports, black athletes will continue to call attention to injustice, bigotry, and hate. We can’t just turn off our feelings and our pain. It matters to them, to me, and to millions of other black Americans who love this country and just want to see it love us back.