By Matthew Pramas
On Dec. 4, a panel of students and faculty met with audience members to discuss the events surrounding a silent protest by the St. Michael’s men’s basketball team during a UVM game. The discussion board addressed the controversy surrounding the basketball team’s decision to take a knee during the National Anthem at the Nov. 4 game, in light of differing responses from the St. Michael’s community. The panel entitled “Protest Patriotism, Community” followed the basketball team’s Nov. 27 response and President John Neuhauser’s Nov. 10 letter, which offered an apology to those offended by the team’s protest.
The six Saint Michael’s players and three coaches who kneeled beside other team members took part in the national “Take a Knee” protest, which brings attention to the mistreatment of African Americans. Earlier this year, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick created the “Take a Knee” protest that has received increasing attention as more athletes have participated in it. While some supported the Saint Michael’s team taking a knee, other white audience members taunted and heckled them, using profanity and saying things like “go back to Africa.”
Winston Jones II ’19, a St. Michael’s basketball player who kneeled, was on the panel and said that kneeling during the anthem is “not a sign of disrespect” and that the protest is “about bringing awareness.” “I think it’s more a sign of respect and how we have to honor the veterans [who] are fighting for these rights and how Americans and the government are not upholding those standards they’ve created.” Jones said that he prepared for a hostile reaction, which he feels will help begin further discussion.
While President Neuhauser did not attend the panel, he wrote in his letter “Thoughts on Taking a Knee” that he felt the team’s protest did not intend to disrespect the flag and said, “we cannot and will not endorse disrespect for the flag or for those who serve all of us and, in previous generations, actually sustained the College in difficult times.” Neuhauser did not endorse either side directly and he made no comment about those individuals who had been recorded taunting the players at the UVM game.
Neuhauser ended his letter with the following message: “If others, especially veterans or active military personnel, have been offended by recent actions that were not intended to offend then we owe an apology even as we cherish the right to free expression peacefully expressed. The country and this Community should expect nothing less.”
Chris Boutin ’18, a Marine and Army veteran who was on the panel, said, “I saw it as a point of pride knowing that I’d…spent two years of my life in actual combat and knowing that there are actual Americans that are willing to exercise their rights.” Boutin also said that he understands why some veterans feel personally attacked with the national protest, given their traumatic experiences in war and the tightly-knit connection they have with the U.S. flag.
Other panel members included professor Traci Griffith as moderator, professor Katherine Kirby, Director of Public Safety Doug Babcock, and Rev. David Theroux. Babcock and Jones both agreed that the nature of protest is disruptive in a good way, and a common feeling among panel members was a hope for further discourse, but more importantly further steps towards tangible change.
The basketball team’s statement released over a week ago said “We took a knee to draw attention to the daily injustices that African American’s face due to the color of our skin.” Ultimately, the team wrote that it hopes for greater dialogue. “Our goal was to bring awareness to the situation like other athletes have been doing with their respective platforms.”
Director of Athletics Christopher Kenny commented separately in an email interview, saying he supports student-led protests as long as they are respectful and thoughtful. “We defend a student’s right to participate in this form of peaceful protest,” he said. Kenny mentioned that there are many effective means to protest with taking a knee as just one. The women’s basketball team as linked arms during the anthem prior to their games.
The team wrote that they are pleased to contribute to a national discussion about race and inequality, regardless of the taunting. If a similar protest occurs on campus, Kenny “hope[s] that our fans would be respectful of this peaceful form of silent protest, and display tolerance if they disagree.