The silent protest from eight men’s basketball players during the national anthem was seen and felt across the nation, putting the national spotlight on the city of Oxford, yet again.
While most of the national sports media outlets have returned to their discussions of Zion Williamson, LeBron James or the NFL Combine, the players’ protest of the neo-Confederate groups will not be forgotten anytime soon in Oxford.
Voices flood both sides of the aisle in the conversation about the protest, and the sentiment from some national media personalities has been that the form of the players’ demonstration is ineffective.
“No, I don’t think (kneeling during the national anthem) is effective,” Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports told The Daily Mississippian. “It’s exactly playing into the hands of bigots, white nationalist groups (and) KKK groups. (They) are fringe elements of American society and are looking for attention and are looking to provoke a response from people.”
The national story may have been that players were simply protesting neo-Confederate presence on campus, but it forces Oxford and the university to get to the root of why those groups were here in the first place.
Students and faculty across campus are calling for immediate action from the administration to address its identity. Director of the university’s African American studies program Charles K. Ross, an expert on African-Americans in sports, said that the events over the weekend are all the more reason to take down the university’s Confederate statue.
“These groups came on campus because they have identified with the University of Mississippi and its Confederate past and the fact that the University of Mississippi has the strongest identity of any school in America to the Confederacy and what it represented,” Ross said. “The University of Mississippi has worked hard, to an extent, to try to distance itself, but there’s also an argument that there’s a whole lot more that the university could be doing.”
He said the university should be focussed on its students rather than its athletic reputation.
“This issue is bigger than wins and losses,” Ross said. “They’re students. They walk around on campus — they understand what the Confederate monument represents for many African-Americans. It’s a very polarizing structure. It’s a structure that, when you look at it, you know it’s not for you. It’s not something positive. In fact, it’s very negative.”
Ross has extensively researched black athletes and the impact of their participation in sports on race relations. His writings on the integration of the NFL and black athletes in the AFL highlights how players have used their platforms to cause social change.
“Many people are going to be critical of these young men because (those people) don’t want the university to continue to shed those symbols that some people feel are untouchable,” Ross said. “That’s the larger issue.”
Last semester, Ross gave a campus lecture two days after Nike released an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick calling on people to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Kneeling during the national anthem is undoubtedly a divisive topic in America, and this is especially true at a university with Ole Miss’s history. Whitlock argues that both sides of the dispute at Ole Miss are in the wrong.
“In terms of athletes saying, ‘Hey, we meant no disrespect to the flag or to the military,’ I think they need to take a step back and ask themselves if they don’t sound exactly like the people who defend the Confederate flag or the Confederate monuments and say, ‘Hey, we meant no disrespect toward black people. It doesn’t symbolize slavery and racism, it means something else to us,’” Whitlock said.
Whitlock went on to say that he’s happy Kermit Davis supported his players and thinks he made the correct decision in doing so.
“He’s done the right thing by supporting the players,” Whitlock said. “I think (with) young people, you have to be more sympathetic when they respond emotionally. Kermit Davis and a lot of these college coaches are in a tough spot because the professional athletes have made this the thing to do.”
Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis and Athletics Director Ross Bjork came out in support of the players immediately after the game, but the administration and Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks have yet to show public support for the players’ demonstration, deferring to Bjork and the athletics department.
“I think that basketball coaches and athletic directors are not experts on these issues,” Whitlock said. “They’re put in the firing line because the chancellor (doesn’t) step up and take the lead on that. They leave it to their underlings, who are primarily paid to win basketball games, not be experts on social issues.”
Susan Glisson, former director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, also believes in the power of the players’ peaceful demonstration. She said it is a valid response to a statue that many believe is a magnet for hate groups.
“I was really moved, and I was really proud,” Glisson said. “It’s clear to me that they were responding to visitors from outside the state who were coming to lift up messages of hate, and I thought it was a respectful and dignified way to show their concern and to deliver a message that was all positive.”
The protest on Saturday marked the first time men’s college basketball players at a major university have knelt in protest during the national anthem.
“I think this is going to be the norm, going forward, until there is some new way to express your displeasure with whatever’s going on in your bubble-world or whatever is going on in society around you,” Martenzie Johnson, senior researcher for “The Undefeated,” said. The Undefeated is an ESPN website that explores the intersections of race, sports and culture.
Whitlock said Ole Miss’s players and coaches shouldn’t have to be the spokesmen for the university, instead, that the administration should step up and speak out.
“If the president or chancellor of the school is not talking and being the leader on this, why should we expect the basketball coach and athletics director?” Whitlock said. “I would call that poor leadership.”