SU Athletics

Amid national debate, Syracuse Athletics does not intend to adopt a policy for athlete protests

Courtesy of SU Archives

The Syracuse 8 was a group of SU football players who petitioned for racial equality on the SU football team in 1970. Forty-seven years later, athletes across the nation have protested inequalities.

Last week, Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh applauded Colin Kaepernick in Time Magazine. “His willingness to take a position at personal cost is now part of our American story,” he wrote. It reignited debate over national anthem protests, as some argue they are disrespectful to the country.

It’s been nearly eight months since Kaepernick first knelt during the national anthem. The former NFL star is still without a team. Whether that’s a result of the baggage that comes with his politics or his on-field performance is unclear. But how sports leagues, teams and administrators address athlete demonstrations is still very much alive, Syracuse included.

Last month, U.S. Soccer adopted a policy stating all players must stand for the national anthem or face disciplinary action. At Syracuse, Director of Athletics John Wildhack said this month that SU has not adopted a policy toward protests, nor does it intend to. None of the more than 600 Syracuse student athletes has outwardly protested during the national anthem, either by kneeling, sitting or staying in the locker room. Last fall, Wildhack and each of the coaches sat down and discussed how to address such protests, if they were to occur at SU.

“What we would ask is if anyone did plan to protest,” Wildhack said, “they do it in an appropriate manner. We would like an inkling if someone has a concern. We respect their right to exercise free speech.”

Wildhack declined to say the steps SU would take if an athlete expressed he or she wanted to protest. Men’s basketball head coach Jim Boeheim said last fall that he believes it’s important to stand during the national anthem and that he isn’t a “protest guy.” He said SU players are welcome to talk about it. Football head coach Dino Babers declined last fall to elaborate on the topic.

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Jessica Sheldon | Staff Photographer

The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Kaepernick and his teammates knelt in protests against racism and police brutality. It sparked a debate that over the last few months has hardly faded. Other NFL players have protested in similar manner. East Carolina University’s marching band refused to stand at a football game, and WNBA players and youth athletes alike have knelt in protest.

Bach Avezdjanov is a program officer at Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, a New York City offshoot of Columbia University that studies the implications of free speech. He studies rights and freedoms and said while it is a subjective matter, the consequences of such actions must first be considered. He said only if an act of speech directs violence can it be regulated.

“Symbolic speech is a slippery slope,” Avezdjanov said. “It’s not about the way you do it. It’s what comes out of it in the moment that the speech occurs.

“Teams look at you as a commodity, as a brand,” he added. “Anything you do someone might find offensive.”

The recent protests conjure those of the 1960s and 1970s, when college and professional sports teams demonstrated inequality. Back in 1972, the Louisville men’s basketball team did not leave the locker room for the national anthem. The same year, Northern Illinois’s president said “tensions are high” with black students. When UCLA played at Oregon and Cal in 1970-71, large groups of black fans did not stand during the national anthem, according to the Los Angeles Times. And in 1972-73, cheerleaders at Creighton walked off of the court before the anthem and returned when the song ended.

In 1970, a group of Syracuse football players known as the “Syracuse 8” boycotted the football season in an effort to demand change and promote racial equality within the program. Later that year, former Syracuse football and lacrosse legend Jim Brown infuriated the Orange when he supported the boycotters, according to the book “Leveling the Playing Field: The Story of the Syracuse Eight.” They signed a petition demanding starting assignments based on merit rather than race and a discernible effort to racially integrate the coaching staff, which had been all white since 1898. Brown backed the players and blasted his old coaches.

Brown also stood alongside Muhammad Ali in the 1960s, when the boxing champion protested going to Vietnam. In 2015, former SU basketball star Carmelo Anthony marched in Baltimore in Freddie Gray protests. And, in November 2015, the Missouri football team threatened to boycott its season.

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Daily Orange File Photo

Nearly all of the major acts of athlete activism are to protest police brutality, criminal justice, education reform or income inequality. Today, across the Atlantic Coast Conference, member schools vary on how they approach athlete protest.

A Louisville spokesman said in an email that the ACC school allows each of its student athletes to protest the way Kaepernick did, though none have done so to his knowledge. Its men’s basketball coach, Rick Pitino, said he would discuss any issues with players.

“It’s a free country. You just get up there and you just say your piece,” Pitino said in October. “It’ll go national. And if there is something bothering you socially, go ahead and say it.”

Roy Williams, head coach of 2017 NCAA champions North Carolina, switched his view in the weeks after Kaepernick kneeled. The 66-year-old Williams originally was angered, according to CBS Sports. He softened his stance and has said he is open to discussing the topic as long as players notify him beforehand. Williams spoke with his players the day after Kaepernick’s first demonstration.

“I told them, ‘Come on, tell me what you’re thinking, feeling got any questions about it?’” Williams told CBS Sports.

Last fall, Wake Forest held an open forum for all student-athletes. The students decided that it’s up to each team whether players can protest by refusing to stand for the anthem. The university has maintained that policy. During the national anthem, the Demon Deacons’ men’s basketball team interlocked arms.

Even as the 2016-17 athletic year nears its end, the athlete-protest debate persists.

“If anyone is going to choose to protest,” Wildhack said, “they really should think, ‘What is the appropriate way to do that?’”

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