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IOWA CITY — At all seven football games at Kinnick Stadium this year, 15 to 20 Black Iowa players knelt during the playing of the national anthem. There was no apparent booing or heckling of them.
Things weren’t the same in Lincoln, Neb., on Nov. 12 before the Maryland-Nebraska volleyball match.
“Stand up, you piece of trash,” one Nebraska fan yelled at a Maryland player who was kneeling, just before the anthem was about to be sung. Other fans joined in with unkind remarks.
Maryland player Rainelle Jones said “It was definitely a big reminder that there’s still tons of racism. There’s still tons of backlash happening to athletes kneeling during the anthem.”
In front of average home crowds of 66,777, Hawkeye players peacefully protested social injustice without blowback.
“I thought I would, but I haven’t heard anything,” said Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather.
“Honestly, I don’t even think I have to explain (why he kneels). I think it’s pretty much seen every single day.”
In June 2020, less than two weeks after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, former and current Iowa football players spoke out about what they perceived as racial issues within the program.
“There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program,” former Hawkeye James Daniels tweeted. “Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long.”
Just over a week later, Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle was dismissed.
Merriweather tweeted the following in the midst of that turbulent time, making you wonder if the Hawkeyes’ relationship with their fans might unravel:
“If you cannot support us right now with this movement and with our team taking a knee during the national anthem, DO NOT support us during the football season. DO NOT watch our games on TV. DO NOT come up to us when you want photos. DO NOT ask us to give your kids autographs.
“DON’T COME TO US EXPECTING TO DO FOR YOU WHEN YOU CAN’T SUPPORT THE BLACK ATHLETES ON THIS TEAM AND THE DECISIONS WE MAKE AS A TEAM.
“I would rather play in front of 1,000 fans who care about us as people outside of people and what we are standing for, than 70,000 fans who only care about us when we are in the uniform and on the field entertaining them.”
Though Merriweather has just 4,000 Twitter followers, his statement was retweeted over 3,000 times and he got 800 comments. Over 17,000 people clicked “like.”
There was some criticism among those who replied, mostly from people insisting kneeling during the anthem was disrespectful. But Merriweather got far more support.
“It definitely was surprising,” he said. “I thought I was going to get a lot more backlash. Just seeing all the support that I got was definitely heartwarming.
“I definitely feel like people understood what was going on and had my back as a fan base and as a community.”
Over 100 current and former Iowa players and employees were interviewed in an external review of the program that was completed in late July of 2020. Its report said the program “perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity.”
“If you call yourself a fan of any Iowa sport teams with Black players,” Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins tweeted in mid-June of last year, “you should not be silent during these times. If you can’t support us now, you don’t support at all.”
Here we are in November 2021. Merriweather, a fourth-year junior from Michigan, stayed with the Hawkeyes. Hankins, a fifth-year senior from Texas, did likewise. Both have been integral players on a team that is 15-4 over the last two seasons.
Are things now significantly better within the program?
“I would definitely say that,” Merriweather replied.
“Everything that happened last June, I think that kind of brought our team together as one as a unit, as a family. That kind of opened everybody’s eyes up to everybody’s uniqueness on the team. People came closer together.
“Not just calling each other brothers, but actually looking at each other like we’re family. That’s something we all wanted to achieve and that’s what we all wanted to get to. I think that’s what really kept us together as a unit.
“I think everybody understands why I’m kneeling. I think that’s where it starts, really.”
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