A decision by Kentucky men’s basketball players and their coach, John Calipari, to kneel during the national anthem before a game over the weekend has set off a backlash in the conservative state, which voted, 62 percent to 36 percent, for President Trump in the November general election.
The Kentucky players said they discussed their decision to kneel with Calipari before Saturday’s game at Florida. The gesture, an increasingly common statement of support for social justice measures by athletes, was inspired in part by the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol last week in Washington, the players said, and so when Calipari summoned several of them to ask what they had planned, they asked him and the rest of the coaches to join them.
While last week’s events in Washington had been the spark for the discussion of kneeling, players said, they also had other issues in mind.
“It’s a lot of stuff that goes on every day that we knelt for,” Kentucky forward Keion Brooks said. “The Capitol, that stuff, had a part to play in it, but there are some other things we don’t see that go on every day that are unacceptable, that we want to take a stand against.”
Images from the scenes in Washington, where Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol and openly threatened lawmakers, had affected the players, they said.
“It was a couple of things,” forward Isaiah Jackson said. “Like, I saw the noose. That was just — was out of pocket. That’s just something that people shouldn’t do.”
It was the first time Kentucky players had knelt for the anthem this season, an act that was popularized last year during the Black Lives Matter protests. At previous games, the team was not on the court for the anthem.
One Florida player, Scottie Lewis, also took a knee during the anthem.
The incident has angered many in Kentucky, though, including fans expressing disagreement on social media, public figures and at least one government body.
At the statehouse on Monday, the Senate president, Robert Stivers, wept while criticizing the players. He also condemned the occupation of the Capitol building in Washington on Wednesday, but said of the players’ kneeling: “Was it at the right place or the right time? That’s debatable.”
Calipari rejected Stivers’s contention that the kneeling had been disrespectful to the military.
“It wasn’t about military,” Calipari said on his radio show on Monday. “Six of these players come from military families. Either their father was in the military, their brother, their uncle, a couple of them, their grandfathers, they were in the military. This wasn’t about the military.”
At least one government body called for defunding the university over the action. The legislature in Knox County, known as the Fiscal Court, adopted a resolution asking that state money for the university be reallocated because of the protest.
The university “receives millions and millions of dollars every year of hardworking Kentucky taxpayers’ money,” Knox County Judge Executive Mike Mitchell told The Times-Tribune of Corbin, Ky. “I think they need to be held accountable for their actions if they can’t manage it no better than that.”
The sheriff of Laurel County, John Root, burned some Kentucky gear on Facebook, then added in a post, “I honestly can’t believe a team from Kentucky (the Hillbilly State) took a knee to our national anthem with the American flag displayed.”
But the players had defenders, too. The president of the university, Eli Capilouto, and the athletic director, Mitch Barnhart, released a joint statement on Monday.
“A value we all hold dear in our country is the right of free speech and self-expression,” they wrote. “That right for young students such as these is important, too, as they learn, grow, and find out who they are and what they believe. We won’t always agree on every issue. However, we hope to agree about the right of self-expression, which is so fundamental to who we are as an institution of higher learning.”
Kentucky, the national champion in 2012 and a perennial contender, is off to a 4-6 start this season, with a 3-0 record in the Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats’ next game is Tuesday night at home against Alabama. The players have said they are undecided if they will kneel again, but, for or against, their fans will have a chance to be heard: Unlike some states, Kentucky continues to allow spectators at sporting events during the pandemic, and more than 3,000 will be allowed to attend.