Devontae Shuler knelt for 63 seconds on Saturday.
The basketball team’s historic on-court protest was brief, yet it overshadowed a day’s worth of neo-Confederate demonstrations happening at the same time in the heart of campus.
The sophomore Rebel took to his knee as the opening notes of “The Star Spangled Banner” played in The Pavillion. Twenty seconds later, five of his teammates had joined him. Before the song’s end, two more players made the decision to drop down in silent opposition to the divisive rhetoric echoing steps away in the Circle.
Brian Halums was the first to join Shuler in kneeling. Luis Rodriguez, KJ Buffen, D.C. Davis and Bruce Stevens followed shortly after, lowering their heads as the national anthem continued to play. Breein Tyree started fidgeting. Glancing at teammates to his left and right, and then up at the jumbotron, Tyree said something under his breath and nodded to Franco Miller Jr. The pair took a knee as the song came to a close, and Tyree held his head up facing the crowd.
These eight young men are the first Ole Miss student-athletes to protest during the national anthem in any sport. It is the first instance of men’s college basketball players at a major university kneeling during the anthem since NFL players began similar protests against police brutality and racism in 2016.
On Saturday, the Rebels had enough.
“We’re just tired of these hate groups coming to our school and portraying our campus, our actual university, as having these hate groups in our school,” Tyree said in a postgame press conference.
National media often characterizes the University of Mississippi as clinging to its past. In 2017, NBC wrote that “The Confederacy still haunts the campus of Ole Miss.” The same year, Huffington Post wrote that “This Student Mocked The Confederate Flag And Received Death Threats For It.” In 2014, The New York Times wrote that “Racist Episodes Continue to Stir Ole Miss Campus.”
It’s true that visits from hate groups and racist demonstrations aren’t new to the Ole Miss campus or to these eight players. This past week marked five years since the February morning when a group of white students draped a noose and Georgia state flag bearing the Confederate battle emblem over the school’s statue of James Meredith. In October 2015, neo-Confederate protesters came to campus to rally against a group of students who were calling for the university to remove the Mississippi state flag.
Though neo-Confederate marches like this past weekend’s are a part of Ole Miss history, so are instances of students speaking up for what is right.
The university opted to take down the state flag in 2015 after Associated Student Body senators and the Faculty Senate both voted in favor of its removal. That iteration of neo-Confederate protesters in 2015 lost its fight with the student body, and because of the Rebel basketball team’s peaceful on-court protest this weekend, today’s Ole Miss students can claim another victory over outside agitators.
“Just as our guests came to support what they support, we came to support what we support,” junior exercise science major Camaryn Donaldson said as she left the Pavillion after Saturday’s game. “If they use their platform for that, they can, we have a free and open campus for everybody else to come. It’s equal, I try to see it as equal.”
Judy Robertson, a local fan who attended the game, expressed support for Shuler and the other seven players who kneeled.
“I think it’s O.K.,” Robertson said. “I think they’re showing respect and that’s a good thing. I’m glad that they’re still doing that type of thing. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
— NewsWatch Ole Miss (@NewsWatch_UM) February 23, 2019
Jarvis Benson, president of the university’s Black Student Union, spoke at a student-led Black History Month March last Thursday in opposition to the Confederate statue in the Circle. Following this weekend’s events, Benson said the BSU is supportive of the players who demonstrated.
“I am proud that they felt compelled to use their platform,” Benson said. “We are glad to be their peers.”
Many fans however took to social media to express concern with the players’ protest, and some called on the school to fire Kermit Davis after he publicly supported his players’ actions.
Tyree said he does not expect the team’s pregame protest to continue throughout the season. For these players, it had to happen on Saturday.
“We saw one of our teammates doing it and didn’t want him to be alone,” Tyree said.
Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis said he supported his players’ actions, showing a clear change in mindset since the time he arrived on campus. In his March 2018 introductory press conference, Davis said his team would be “a team that respects the flag and the national anthem.”
The man who many thought would be the one to discipline these eight players for their protest appeared proud of his team on Saturday.
“I think our players made an emotional decision to show these people they’re not welcome on our campus,” Kermit Davis said after the game. “We respect our players’ freedom and ability to choose that.”
— NewsWatch Ole Miss (@NewsWatch_UM) February 24, 2019
Athletics Director Ross Bjork’s statement echoed that of Kermit Davis, providing support for the student-athletes.
“They see what’s happening on our campus and these people that come here and spill hate and bigotry and racism. We don’t want them on our campus,” Bjork said in a statement. “Our players stood up for that. Good for the players for standing up and making a statement.”
After the game, both Bjork and Tyree emphasized that the team meant no disrespect to the American flag or veterans. Tyree tweeted about the protest that night after the game.
“To the people that fight for this country, my teammates and I meant no disrespect to everything that you do for us, but we had to take a stand to the negative things that went on today on our campus. #WeNeedChange,” Tyree wrote.
Bjork said the players’ demonstration represented their opposition to the neo-Confederate protesters rallying on campus.
“It had nothing to do with the anthem,” Bjork said. “It had nothing to do with anything beyond, ‘You know what, we don’t want these people here. They’re protesting during our game and that’s not right because that’s not the Ole Miss that I know.’ We talked to them about that in the locker room, and that’s their expression. We support them.”
Though the athletics department made clear its support of Ole Miss student-athletes, Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks chose to remain silent in the time following the team’s historic national anthem protest.
Jim Zook, the university’s chief marketing and communications officer, said the chancellor was made aware of the players’ protest as it “blew up” on social media but that the chancellor would be leaving public comments to the athletics department.
A spokesman for the athletics department told a reporter from The Daily Mississippian that neither Kermit Davis nor any players would be speaking further on the national anthem protest for the time being, aside from their statements via the press conference and social media. On Saturday night, Tyree told The Daily Mississippian he did not have permission from the department to comment further.
Shuler wasn’t present at the postgame press conference with Kermit Davis and Tyree to provide a comment about initiating the protest. The athletics department has deferred to the press conference and statements made afterwards regarding its position on the protest.
Shuler, the first to kneel and a native of Irmo, South Carolina, played for powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Virginia his final two years in high school, winning a national championship during his senior year in 2016.
He chose Ole Miss over South Carolina, whose campus in Columbia is only around 10 miles from Shuler’s hometown of Irmo. He said he’d hoped to branch out of the familiar territory that he had come to know, which he believes could have potentially hindered his future.
“I’ll always have love for (South Carolina) and (Coach Frank Martin),” Shuler tweeted on Feb. 19. “I just felt like being home around bad influences would have me somewhere I would not want to be. (There are) many of stories of why I did not stay home. And I’m here to tell you that I did (it) for my fam (and) to keep my career going.”
In an interview with The Daily Mississippian at the end of his freshman season last year, Shuler said his sights are set on the NBA draft when he finishes playing ball at Ole Miss. He said he approaches basketball with “tunnel vision” and tries not to stray from his path. He’s a generally happy guy who’s happiest when he’s on the court.”
“I’m a laughable person,” he said in a February 2018 interview. “Always happy. I don’t let too many things get to me. I keep the energy high. I have a positive energy always around me. Never in a bad mood. Trust me on that.”
The Rebels return to the Pavillion court Wednesday afternoon against the No. 5 Tennessee Vols with national attention turned to Oxford, not in response to violence or tragedy that often follows divisive protests like Saturday’s in the Circle, but rather because of the eight black student athletes who took a stand.
Check out our full coverage of the weekend protests here.