The Kneeling Student-Athlete: How Do I Handle It?
I have been hearing from quite a few coaches friends who are saying: Help! My student-athletes want to kneel and I do not know what to do about to do it! How do I show my student-athletes support if my administration does allow it? How do I show support if my administration does not allow it? And lastly, how do I show support to those who are from a military background who might oppose kneeling?
First, it needs to be realized that all of these are valid concerns and should not be dismissed. When thinking about this subject we need to step back and look at the totality of the situation. We need to look at both the people of color who feel not only need, but the necessity to protest, as well as the potential anger or hurt by those in the military or have military backgrounds.
Kneeling during the national anthem was started by Colin Kaepernick (CK) during the 2016 season. CK decided to kneel during the national anthem because, "..."I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."
It seems that CK and other people of color's reasoning for kneeling has been co-opted by people assuming that since the flag and national anthem is involved that it means therefore that military, vets, war heroes, and others are being protested as well. I do not represent all the people kneeling, but I can speak for a high majority when I say: THAT IS INCORRECT. We are kneeling for the black bodies littering the street by police brutality and no police accountability. We want our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, uncles, aunts, friends, and others to come home safely and that is just not occurring right now. We are protesting the continuation of police brutality we see occurring on video with no repercussions.
Now that we have talked about the reason we are kneeling, let's talk about it from the perspective of how the coaching staff can handle what has the possibility of being a hard situation. It is a hard situation because kneeling has become thought of as unpatriotic and therefore should not be allowed or tolerated.
You will probably have student-athletes on both sides of the issues. You will have student-athletes who want to kneel and feel very strongly about what kneeling represents. You will also have student-athletes who feel very strongly about standing while the national anthem plays and what standing represents to them. Both sides have their lived experiences and reasons as to why they believe what they believe- and that is their right. Neither side is wrong. We have become an EITHER/OR society. If you do X that means you do not believe in Y. If you kneel you are not a patriot and do not respect the vets and vise versa if you stand that means you are not acknowledging that police brutality and racism is a real issue. Humans are not monolithic and only have one identity. Humans are intersectional creatures with a multitude of identities that can be in play at any time. When we make society either/or then we ignore identities of what makes that person a human.
A person can be a white vet who has lost black friends to police brutality, and understands the importance of kneeling, just as a black man can have lost family to a war and feels it is important to stand. Neither is wrong. The first amendment allows us the freedom of speech which is what democracy is about.
"The First Amendment's protection of speech and expression is central to the concept of American political system. There is a direct link between freedom of speech and vibrant democracy. Free speech is an indispensable tool of self-governance in a democratic society. But the United States was founded on the more cantankerous revolutionary principles of John Locke, who taught that under the social compact sovereignty always rests with the people, who never surrender their natural right to protest, or even revolt when the state exceeds the limits of legitimate authority. Speech is thus a means of "people-power," through which the people may ferret out corruption and discourage tyrannical excesses." (Freedom of Speech, n.d.)
The idea of the First Amendment has been always thought of as giving the freedom of speech no matter where you are within the country, and that is incorrect. Public and private institutions have different policies in regards to upholding the First Amendment and because of that we need to discuss the difference between public and private schools and what it means for the First Amendment rights of both the student-athletes and the coaching staff. Thefire.org does a great job of explaining the difference between public and private institutions.
PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS: "As state agents, all public colleges and universities are legally bound to respect the constitutional rights of their students. That the protections of the First Amendment apply on public campuses is well-settled law." (Private Universities, n.d) This is to say that if you work at a public institution and the administration is unfortunately against a student-athlete kneeling, the student-athlete can still kneel without repercussions. As a part of the coaching staff, I would still talk to my Human Resources or legal department to find out any information you need to know on how to protect yourself/your job, as well as how to protect the student-athlete.
Private universities are a different entity.
PRIVATE INSTITUTIONS: "Private universities are not directly bound by the First Amendment, which limits only government action. Accordingly, private colleges and universities should be held to the standard that they themselves establish. If a private college advertises itself as a place where free speech is esteemed and protected—as most of them do—then it should be held to the same standard as a public institution." (Private Universities, n.d)
"Although the First Amendment prohibits the government from infringing on free speech rights, it does not prevent private persons or entities from doing so. Thus, while the First Amendment protects free speech at public universities, it generally does not apply to private universities. Most states do not protect free speech at private universities. Legislators are often concerned that affording such protection may infringe on a private university’s own constitutional right to freedom of association. Freedom of association includes the right to choose who to accept and exclude from the association." (Free Speech, 2017) Have a conversation with your administration what the repercussions could be for kneeling student-athletes or staff. If you are coaching at a private school please contact your human resources and legal department to understand what the potential legal ramifications could be. Also, when you talk with the legal department ask what type of repercussions could the athletic department give your student-athletes if they decide to kneel knowing the administration's policy potentially against kneeling.
Now that we have gotten that out of the way let's talk about what to do with your staff and student-athletes if this situation arises. Sidenote: even if it doesn't arise you still need to have this conversation with them. Many of them are feeling the weight of it and want to talk about it with their team aka family.
Here are some ideas about WHO to have conversations with about kneeling and HOW to have them:
- Have a conversation with your coaching staff and potentially your support staff about kneeling and all the topics that surrounding kneeling. Each of you should talk about how you feel about the situation. Head Coaches- this should be a time to allow your staff to comfortably talking about how they feel. If your staff can't openly talk about how they feel then how can you expect your student-athletes to do it?
- Have a conversation with your administration about kneeling. Is there an athletic department policy? Have other coaches brought this issue forward? Does the university have a strong feeling about kneeling? Does your athletic director have a strong feeling one way or another? Will you have support from the administration and school if your players or staff decide to kneel?
- Have a talk with Human Resources to understand how this can affect you, especially if at a private school, and talk with your legal department to gain information on how they can support you.
- Understand the difference between public and private institutions and how it affects the first amendment.
Once you have spoken to your administration and spoken to your staff there is a multitude of directions it can go in:
- Your administration says it is your call. You can do what you feel is best for the team.
- Your administration is on the fence about kneeling, but will support your decision.
- Your administration is completely against kneeling and there is a possibility of job loss or suspensions.
- Your administration is against kneeling but you are at a public school.
- Your administration is against kneeling but you are at a private school.
We will talk about the above-mentioned options before discussing how to handle the team discussion.
- Your administration tells you they support you and your student-athletes, or that they are against it personally but will support you and your student-athletes. These are beautiful words to be heard. Once you have been told this, please make sure you have spoken to your SID because there could be a lot of hate mail, emails, or comments. You want to prepare them and give them any talking points that will be needed. The next step will be a discussion with your team.
- Your administration is completely against kneeling and there is a possibility of job loss or suspensions. This one will be a little tougher to deal with, especially if you have student-athletes you suspect feel strongly about kneeling. If your administration is against kneeling ask them what they view as another option for your student-athletes. Are they allowed to stay in the locker room for the national anthem? What do they view as acceptable, and also ask what will be the consequences for any student-athletes who do kneel? This will be important to relay to your student-athletes. The student-athletes who want to kneel but cannot, could potentially angry. They could feel as if the administration does not care for them or does not understand why the administration cannot see why they feel the need to kneel. Unfortunately, this is where you have to take one for the team. This is where having the open conversation with the team and with those student-athletes can help soften the blow. Also having other options can also help the situation a bit.
- Your administration is against it but you are at a public school: Legally you or your student-athletes have the ability to use their freedom of speech. There should be no repercussions. Check with your legal department for written confirmation of no repercussions.
- Your administration is against kneeling and you work at a private school: The first amendment, "freedom of speech" does not hold true while attending or working at a private school. Please read the paragraph on private institutions to better understand why they do not have to abide by the First Amendment. This has the potential to cause issues for your student-athletes if they are considering kneeling or for yourself if you are considering kneeling. I would recommend having an in-depth conversation with your administration to discuss what other methods would be acceptable to them other than kneeling- especially if they are against it. Some have come to an agreement that the student-athletes waiting in the locker room is acceptable.
Now that you have spoken to your staff and administration it is time to talk to your student-athletes. This is a very polarizing conversation that could lead to anger and tears. Just accept it and be prepared for it. Call a team meeting and explaining you will be talking about kneeling. Set a few ground rules before the conversation:
- Respect the person speaking.
- Understand everyone has their own experiences which guide them.
- When people are speaking look at them.
- You are not a racist if you believe in standing, they are not a racist because they decided to stand.
- Difficult conversations with people you love are always harder and ALWAYS bring out more emotion, but they still need to be had.
Once you have laid out the ground rules let the conversation get started. You can start with a few lead-in comments and questions. BE PREPARED FOR AWKWARD SILENCES. Do not try to fill up the space with useless chatter because people have the tendency to not want to talk about their emotions or start the conversation on tough subjects. Let them be quiet and let them figure out what they want to say.
Make sure to ask open-ended questions. Here are few questions you can stay to get the conversation going would be:
- How do you feel about kneeling?
- How do you feel about the topics associated with kneeling: police brutality, racism, patriotism, the military, or what the flag represents?
- How do you feel about your teammates kneeling or not kneeling? (Make sure they use I statements)
- How can we as a staff support you?
- How can your teammates support you?
If you do not feel comfortable having this conversation please reach out to your cultural center to facilitate this conversation, to be in the room to help if any help is needed, to be support for the students (especially if they cannot kneel), and or to help guide your staff.
As always if you need any help please reach out to me firstname.lastname@example.org, I can help lead you through understanding how to facilitate this tough conversation.
M.C. Sungaila, M.C, Fohn, Polly and Breaux, Natasha. (2017) Free Speech At Private Universities: Protected Or Not?. Retrieved from https://www.law360.com/articles/919291
Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Press. (n.d). Retrieved from http://www.lincoln.edu/criminaljustice/hr/Speech.html
Private Universities. (n.d). Retrieved from https://www.thefire.org/spotlight/public-and-private-universities/