When Ayanna Strother, a junior on the Bluefield College women’s basketball team, heard that the men’s team had been suspended for kneeling during the national anthem before games, she and her teammates weren’t surprised.

The decision to kneel was not a spur-of-the-moment gesture. Like college and professional athletes of color across the country who had done the same thing, the mostly Black men’s team wanted to make their presence felt and raise public awareness about police brutality against people of color and racial injustice in society at large, said Strother, who has since been participating in other protest actions led by the college’s athletes, including non-Black athletes.

The athletes are also trying to make a larger point about diversity and inclusion on a campus where Black people are the majority of the members of sports teams but are not as well represented within the larger student body. Black people also make up a small fraction of faculty or professional staff members and are rare in the ranks of administrators. The college’s Office of Public Affairs said in an email that 21 percent of faculty members and 15 percent of staff members are “ethnically diverse,” without providing a breakdown of races and ethnicities represented.

The athletes believe discussions about racial equity that have been taking place at American colleges and universities in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd should also be occurring at Bluefield, a small Baptist institution in southwest Virginia.

“We want them to understand that we’re here and we cannot turn this off. We can’t just stop being Black and ignore it,” Strother said. “This being a Christian community, everything going on on-campus is faith-based. But at some point, you have to look in the mirror and say, ‘Jesus would not want this happening in our country and culture.'”

Prohibiting athletes from kneeling during the national anthem “just doesn’t sit right with me,” she said.

Strother said the experiences and concerns of Black students are not often discussed or addressed by Bluefield leaders even though these students are 15 percent of the student body. The rest of the students are 59 percent white and 6 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to fall 2019 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. (Thirteen percent of enrolled students were categorized as “race/ethnicity unknown.”)

The entire men’s basketball team was issued a one-game suspension on Feb. 11 for kneeling before multiple games, ESPN reported. The team was forced to forfeit the game because players violated a directive from the college’s president, David Olive, to either stay in the locker room or stand during the anthem. Olive and the players have since been in engaged in conversations about the intentions behind kneeling and their experiences as Black students, according to a Feb. 11 letter he wrote to the campus. Olive also vowed to have more forums and “meaningful discussions” about racism with the campus after Floyd’s murder.

But Stanley Christian, a senior on the men’s basketball team, told ESPN immediately after the suspensions that meetings with Olive were “like we were talking to a wall” and that he is limiting players’ free speech rights and using their status as athletes representing Bluefield to justify the decision.

Olive explained that kneeling was politically divisive and would be viewed negatively by “alumni, friends and donors” of the college, his Feb. 11 letter said.

The athletes’ message “was being diluted or completely lost because some saw their act of kneeling as being disrespectful to the flag, our country, and to our veterans,” he wrote. “In my opinion, their message was not being heard.”

He also noted that the athletes don’t just speak for themselves because “anytime a student athlete puts on a jersey that says ‘Bluefield College’ on it, the message is no longer just the student athlete’s message … it becomes the message of Bluefield College.”

The athletes have a different perspective.

“That jersey is basically shackles to us,” Christian told ESPN. “Now we feel like we’re chained up now, and that’s not right. And when that jersey comes off us, we’re still Black in America, and I have to face that reality.”​

Christian and other players on the team have not responded to requests for comment. Several sources, both affiliated and unaffiliated with the college, have separately said the players were instructed by college officials not to speak to members of the media. The college’s Office of Public Affairs disputed this and said in an email that students and others affiliated with the college are only required to coordinate media interviews with the office.

Some alumni found Olive’s response to the players’ demonstration disappointing and surprising because of his previous statements and actions, which seemed supportive of advancing social justice.

Megan Westra, a 2010 graduate of the college, said Olive started his presidency in 2007 with a progressive Christian message, encouraging students to “act justly,” which, to her, incorporated the pursuit of social justice. He also referenced a Bible verse in his more recent message to campus about “racial violence and injustice” after Floyd’s murder.

“It is important for us to support those within our campus community who desire to be heard in this moment,” Olive’s message said. “Let us be continually mindful of God’s greatest commandment; to love God and love one another. Let us all heed the command in Micah 6:8 to ‘do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.'”

Westra, who is white, viewed Olive’s suspension of the men’s basketball team as a complete reversal of his stated values and a “huge abdication of leadership.”

“[Olive] launched his tenure at Bluefield with this message from the prophets, calling on the student body to seek justice, love, mercy and be more socially minded,” Westra said, adding that Olive influenced her formerly conservative political views. “I was really stunned to see that strong of a reaction for something that has become such a common form of protest.”

Strother said the suspension of the team, which came on top of critical comments, some of them racist, on social media urging college administrators to punish team members and “take away their scholarships” or “don’t let them play,” was the first time she experienced “aggressive” and in-your-face racism at the college.

“It’s been hard on all of us Black athletes,” she said. “We can’t express who we are or peacefully protest something without being ridiculed for it.”

Olive said that Bluefield’s status as a private, Christian college gives him the legal authority to punish athletes for kneeling during the anthem on college property and while participating in college activities.

“We are a private entity, not a governmental entity,” he wrote in his letter to the campus reiterating that anyone wearing the team uniform represents Bluefield College. “Heightened expectations are now placed on that individual as to what s/he can and cannot do or say as a representative of the college.”

Olive’s stance has attracted national attention and scrutiny of the college.

Robert Barnette Jr., president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, said in a statement that the organization “is extremely concerned” about Bluefield punishing the athletes for their peaceful protest, which Barnette called “an attempt to silence their valid concerns.”

Da’Quan Love, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, said that after receiving complaints, the organization has launched a formal investigation into the college’s actions.

“We are concerned about this issue, but also the possibility that this investigation may lead to us being aware of deeper underlying issues of race and diversity, or lack thereof, at the college,” Love said. “We’re being very purposeful in our pursuit to ensure that all students, especially Black students, feel comfortable at their college.”

Trey Wilson, a 2013 Bluefield graduate and former staff member in the athletics department, said Olive and other leaders are wrong to acquiesce to people who have “racist and bigoted ideals” and are offended by the kneeling rather than trying to understand athletes who are pushing for social change.

Wilson, who is white, said the college has grown more diverse since he was a student there a decade ago and that the demographic shifts were a result of the expansion of the athletics program. But he believes those strides have been undermined by the decision to ban athletes from kneeling during the anthem. People will now more likely associate the college with hatred instead of diversity, he said, noting that racist people on Twitter and other social media are “rallying around Bluefield College because of these decisions.”

“That has infuriated me the most about this,” he said. “Seeing people who are racist, white supremacist bigots, who have used this message to amplify their message … I hope that realization will land with the leaders of the college and resonate, make them take another look at the way they’re handling this, and decide, ‘Who are we representing here?’”

Westra wrote an open letter to Olive demanding that he apologize to the men’s basketball team for the suspensions and institute a policy that protects players’ right to kneel during the anthem. She said about 220 Bluefield alumni had signed the letter.

Wilson, who works as communications director for a minor league baseball team based in Richmond, was among the signers. It was “concerning” and “frustrating” to see Olive in his Feb. 11 statement misrepresent the wishes of alumni, many of whom are in support of the athletes’ right to kneel during the anthem, Wilson said.

A statement sent to Inside Higher Ed by Bluefield’s Office of Public Affairs on behalf of Olive said the athletes’ message and conversation about racial justice has “shifted” into a debate about kneeling during the anthem. That is why athletes were asked not to kneel in the first place, the statement said.

“We have become inflamed debating among ourselves in-person and online about whether kneeling during the National Anthem is appropriate or not,” the statement said. “We encourage our campus community to demonstrate in constructive ways so their voices can be heard by everyone.”

The statement offered an example of protest that would be acceptable before athletic events, such as athletes reading “a call to action that now is the time to work together towards issues of racial justice and equality.” Olive encouraged alumni “to support our students by participating in conversations and on-going action to correct these systemic issues in communities across the nation.”

Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association, an organization that advocates for athletes’ rights, said Bluefield is an outlier in its opposition to athletes kneeling for the anthem. He said institutional and conference leaders across the athletics landscape this year have generally been supportive of this form of protest.

Not so the Republican members of the Tennessee Senate. They wrote to the presidents and chancellors of the state’s public colleges and universities this week, urging them to adopt policies that prohibit athletes from kneeling during the anthem. The letter was in response to men’s basketball players at East Tennessee State University kneeling for the anthem at a game earlier this month.

Kneeling for the anthem, and other ways athletes speak up and bring attention to racial injustice, were a focal point of college discussions following Floyd’s killing last summer. The Big Ten Conference, for example, said before the start of the 2020 football season that players would be permitted to kneel during the anthem.

Huma said the suspension of the Bluefield men’s basketball team for doing so was “a terrible action” and uncommon, given the country’s current political climate.

“It’s a peaceful protest about correcting a system that needs to be corrected,” Huma said, referring to police brutality. “It’s the type of peaceful protest that can raise awareness and generate pressure to change the system … Bluefield College needs to reverse course immediately and apologize. These are human rights issues. It shouldn’t be about playing politics.”

Strother thinks the college is trying to restrict and control students’ methods of protest. Though she believes kneeling for the anthem before games is the most effective way to bring public attention to the issues, she and other athletes have found other ways to demonstrate against the college’s policy and bring attention to the injustices Black people face nationwide.

The men’s basketball team has decided to remain in the locker room during the anthem, which Olive has allowed, according to ESPN. Strother said the women’s team knelt at an away game, but not during the anthem. Students gathered at the college’s Mitchell Stadium during a Rams football game on Feb. 13 and knelt during the anthem and again gathered on campus on Feb. 17 to protest Olive’s decision.

The athletes have also gotten support from a large group of alumni, some of whom attended the Feb. 17 protest and read their letter to Olive aloud, said Aynae Simmons, a Bluefield senior and former student government president who has been attending the demonstrations.

The letter demands that the college support athletes’ “right to peaceful protest” in any form and issue a statement and a written policy guaranteeing that right.

“As a Christian institution, Bluefield College should easily be able to acknowledge that the loss of the lives of unarmed African Americans at the hands of police is not only a worthy social concern, but a matter of Gospel integrity out of respect for the Image of God in every person,” the letter states.

Simmons, who is Black and a former member of the women’s basketball team, said more deep and “uncomfortable” conversations about race need to occur on campus, including about supporting how Black students choose to express themselves. If Bluefield wants to continue to recruit Black students for its athletic teams, it’s time for college leaders to address their struggles and needs, she said.

“In my opinion, we feel like another statistic,” Simmons said. “We come here to help you guys get money from us playing, then we leave, and that’s it.”

College administrators have embraced the “difficult” conversations about race and progress on the college’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, the statement to Inside Higher Ed said. It noted creation of a DEI academic committee is underway, and racial justice topics have been incorporated into the college’s weekly chapel services.

“As a campus community, we have embarked upon an on-going journey; and are committed to the collaborative work that lies ahead,” the statement said. “Faculty and staff at Bluefield College will continue to work in collaboration with our students on these important matters and equip them with information and skills to transform not only their lives but our world and the problems of racial justice and equality.”

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