IOWA CITY — National anthem protests landed in the Big Ten last weekend.
Players from Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska were among a group throughout the country who demonstrated on sidelines while the anthem played in hopes of raising awareness about social justice issues. The demonstrations, sparked by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick a month ago, have picked up steam after fatal police shootings of black men in North Carolina and Oklahoma last week.
In Piscataway, N.J., last weekend, every player on Iowa’s sideline held their helmet under their left arm and held their right hand over their heart. It was the same on Rutgers’ sideline.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz saw the protests and addressed it with the team’s leadership group on Sunday.
“I wanted to make sure we were all together, how did they feel, and I think the guys — I think we’re all together,” Ferentz said. “Just, again, — and this is my personal feeling, it’s not a mandate — but to me when we’re involved in a team activity, we do things the same. We’ll dress the same on game day, players dress one way, coaches dress the other, but we’re all uniform, we’re all together, just like the swarm. That’s what that’s all about.”
Michigan all-American cornerback Jourdan Lewis was among the Wolverines with their hands in the air. Others included tight end Khalid Hill, outside linebackers Mike McCray and Devin Bush and inside linebacker Elysee Mbem-Bosse.
Michigan Jim Harbaugh said he supported his players’ actions.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last four, five, six weeks,” Harbaugh said. “Because I am the football coach doesn’t mean I can dictate to people what they believe. I support our guys. I think this is something. It’s not going away, it’s gonna keep happening.”
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Harbaugh coached Kaepernick while he served as the 49ers head coach. He previously stated that he understood Kaepernick’s motivation and his right to protest but didn’t agree with the method in which the QB chose to express himself.
Iowa cornerback Desmond King is friends with Lewis and graduated from East English Village Prep in Detroit with Hill. King acknowledges the call to action, but said he’s not a political person and doesn’t plan to join.
“I’m not too big on protesting,” King said. “I’m one of those guys who doesn’t like being in that. I saw one of my friends, Khalid Hill, and a couple of other guys put their fists up during the national anthem. A guy I know from Nebraska took a knee. I’m not big on that. That’s just me.”
Three Michigan State players — running back Delton Williams, safety Kenney Lyke and defensive end Gabe Sherrod — held their right fists in the air while standing for the anthem before the Spartans’ loss to Wisconsin.
“To me, your patriotism, your faith are sort of the same — that’s your choice. And it’s influenced by what you’ve experienced in this world. So whether somebody salutes or puts a hand over their heart, everybody has a choice to make,” MSU coach Mark Dantonio said after the game. “I guess they have decisions that people have to make. As long as it’s done in a peaceful way, this is America. That’s what the flag stands for. It stands for the freedom to do what you need to do. That’s the beautiful thing about this country.
“At some point in time, when the true enemy comes, I guess we’ll all stand together. But I can’t make assumptions for our players, for what they’ve gone through in their lives. All I can do is try and lead the best way I can and be positive and accepting toward our football team and our players. When we come together after the national anthem, we come together in solidarity, and I think that’s what’s important.”
In Evanston, Ill., Nebraska’s Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry and DaiShon Neal knelt and held hands before the Huskers’ game with the Wildcats. Four other Nebraska players jumped in with the Northwestern marching band to lift a giant American flag that sank in a few spots.
During a news conference in Lincoln, Neb., on Monday, Rose-Ivey defended his decision and spoke on some of the racist and violent threats he and his teammates received after the game, which included being called the N-word on social media.
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“Some believe DaiShon, Mohamed, and myself should be kicked off the team or suspended, while some say we should be lynched or shot just like the other black people that have died recently,” Rose-Ivey said. “Another believed that since we didn’t want to stand for anthem, that we should be hung before the anthem before the next game. These are actual statements we received from fans.”
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts called the players’ actions “disgraceful and disrespectful.” Ricketts also said he respected the players’ right to protest, but that he disagreed with the way they did so. Rose-Ivey tweeted to Ricketts on Tuesday, “Would love to sit down and further the discussion with you if you are available.” Ricketts answered on Tuesday night and the two will meet and discuss the topic.
.@Rose_IveyNB15 Thanks for reaching out. Direct message me your information, and we will get something set up right away!
— Gov. Pete Ricketts (@GovRicketts) September 28, 2016
Rose-Ivey asked Nebraska coach Mike Riley if he could address the team about the planned protest before Saturday’s game.
“This is obviously a choice they have made for personal reasons and that’s the beautiful thing about the United States that they can do that,” Riley said.
Illinois players aren’t on the field for the anthem for home games in Champaign, but Illini coach Lovie Smith struck a supportive stance during his Monday news conference.
“I want them (players) to be involved in our community and in their world,” Smith said. “I want them to be involved in politics. I like for them to support a candidate and know the reasons you’re supporting (the candidate) and be vocal about it.”
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In Iowa City, Ferentz expressed support for opinions and advocacy. The Iowa program under Ferentz also has left zero ambivalence for where it stands patriotically. Ferentz’s father, John, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Kinnick Stadium was turned into a giant American mosiac during a card stunt in 2011. In 2012, Iowa fashioned its uniforms for a game against Purdue to have a military feel. There has been a giant flag. Jets have flown over Kinnick Stadium.
Ferentz prefaces his statement with “it’s not a mandate,” but ...
“But when we’re doing this, we’ve got to be together, and that’s just — I don’t know if that’s old school, new school, whatever, but to me that’s how team activities ought to be,” Ferentz said, “and then we’ve all got to be respectful of each other and our personal lifestyles, our preferences, all that kind of stuff, and that’s one of the beauties of football in my opinion.
“You’ve got 100 plus guys, plus a bunch of adults running around here, but we’re all kind of together on one thing, one area, and then when we walk out, hey, we’re all different, and that’s good. That’s healthy.”
The differences between the NFL and college football become rather stark here. College programs have a clear-cut leader in the head coach and Ferentz made his point.
“Expression is a good thing, it’s healthy,” he said. “But there also are boundaries, I think, for everything. And, again, we all volunteered for this as I said a minute ago. We all volunteered for this activity, so we’re all, hopefully, on the same page that way.”
Ferentz said his older brother was into ’60s counterculter, mentioning Vietnam and Woodstock. History certainly has shown that dissent has an energy of its own.