This is a unique year for Penn basketball. The Ivy League was the only league that did not compete last year because of the health risks surrounding COVID-19. Partly because of that hiatus, we have a team that only has a few players with any real college basketball experience at Penn. The rest of the team — whether it be sophomores who missed their first season, players who have not played because of injury, or this year’s first-year class, new to college basketball like any year — has no experience. With that year off, our student-athletes were left to react remotely and in isolation from the rest of our team to the protests that arose from the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Walter Wallace, among many others, as well as incidents like that in Central Park with Amy Cooper telling Christian Cooper she was going to weaponize the police against him.
As the beginning of this season approached, several of our players stated that they wanted to sit for the national anthem. We have several members of our team that have been at the forefront of social and racial justice movements and attempts to foster conversations as well as change policies at the University and locally. The players met and talked about why they would, or in some cases would not, sit for the anthem. As a staff, we had conversations as well. We also spoke as a whole team — the players and the coaching staff together — about the decision.
As one of the coaches, I wanted to make sure that our players were considering all ramifications as much as possible. There would certainly be backlash from fans, particularly in some of the areas we will visit this year. I knew there would likely be letters to our head coach and to our administration. There might be supporters of the program that would end their financial contributions, or longtime fans that would not want to continue to support our program. There might be family members or friends that react negatively. Additionally, there could be future career consequences for both players and staff.
Obviously, this demonstration borrows on that which was started by Colin Kaepernick. Like Kaepernick, our players’ reasons for sitting are not specific to policing in this country. Our team did not intend to disrespect police or military. We have players with former and current military and police in their families. The best man at my wedding is a police officer. Our trainer, who has had differences of opinion with a good portion of our team on societal and political topics, is a veteran and is beloved by the team. For us, collectively, it was more a statement regarding ongoing institutional racism in this country and a hope to foster more truthful conversation moving forward. We may not have a huge platform, but our players wanted to use the one we do have to say we should do better as a country.
The history of the national anthem is problematic, particularly because of the beliefs of Francis Scott Key and part of the third stanza that references slaves. Our players are so smart and so thoughtful. They know this history: the three-fifths compromise, failed Reconstruction, Jim Crow, redlining, the Civil Rights era, the history of policing in this country. The amount of thought that went into their decision to sit for the anthem, and the conversations they have around it, are so much more nuanced and informed than the average American. I should say our Black players know that history. Many of the white players do not — they are ignorant to parts of American history pertaining to race like most Americans.
I thought long and hard about my personal decision whether to stand or sit for the anthem this year. I thought about the ramifications for me personally. I considered whether my actions could negatively affect my boss, the men’s basketball program, or the University, my alma mater. I spoke to administration. I talked to close friends whose opinions I valued most regarding this issue. But I also did not want to take away from the statement that our players were hoping to make — I did not want to distract from that in any way with my decision. In the end, I chose to sit because I wanted to not only show my solidarity and support for these young men who I love like family, but I didn’t want to be the white guy who expressed support but was afraid to do anything that might cause personal discomfort. I wanted to be Peter Norman or the white Freedom Riders. I wanted to be more than an ally — a collaborator — even if only in this small way. Obviously, I think my sacrifice pales in comparison to the Freedom Riders, but I felt it was right for me to sit and potentially sacrifice for what I believe in, rather than for that sacrifice to solely fall on our Black players who chose to sit.
Our first game of the season was against Florida State this year. As a team from the Ivy League, a game against an ACC opponent is always a big opportunity. This year, that opportunity was a little precarious for a couple of reasons. First, Florida State has been so good and was projected to be very good again this year (they certainly proved to be against us). Additionally, we are such an inexperienced team (which was also borne out in this game). Going into the game, we had discussed that the crowd reaction in Tallahassee to our sitting for the anthem would likely not be supportive. Tallahassee does not have a good history regarding race. From cotton and tobacco and their reliance on slavery, to segregation in the city from the end of the Civil War through the early 1970s, to last year’s letter from Black professors in support of Black students regarding ongoing racism at the school, Tallahassee was not going to be welcoming to our team’s intended message.
For the most part, the reaction from some of the fans in the crowd in Tallahassee was not surprising to our Black players and startling for our white players. There were many people yelling and booing. There were several calls of “boy” and “son.” One prominent court-side fan, resplendent in a maroon sports coat, called one of our players the N-word.
The family of one of our players — perhaps the kindest young man I have had the pleasure of coaching and part of a wonderful family — was targeted by a fan, with his two young sons, yelling profanities sitting two rows behind them. Our player’s family was sitting with their two youngest children. The children were very upset about the incident (which reminded me of this video clip from Toni Morrison). After I heard about this, I reached out to the parents. Both parents mentioned how it is a shame that their young ones had to face such vitriol at such young ages. Having recently moved to Florida, the family had driven up from their new home to the game. The father, a veteran who also served as a New York City policeman, said this to me: “This is Florida, we live here now, and some of these men tend to act up when faced with diversity. The Penn men’s basketball team is sending the right message!” He added, “Our patriotic symbols and national anthem have been hijacked in a way that is far from what our country claims to represent.” With that said, he wanted to make the point that “this form of protest needs to be accompanied by tangible actions within the local community.” I believe our team is doing that.
As we traveled back to Philadelphia after the game (which, by the way, has had its own poor history regarding race), the players mentioned that there was a vocal reaction on social media. When we got home, we were informed an email had been sent to our athletic department that called our players and team “despicable” and “disrespectful.”
Does the writer of this email, or any of the people who reacted, know American history — the one that includes Black people? Perhaps, the history textbooks they were taught from were the ones that talk of how kindly slaves were treated, how there were Black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy, and buy into lies like the Lost Cause. Do they know the history of the anthem? Do they know the history of policing in this country? Do they know that people of color are represented disproportionately in the military? Do they know that some Black soldiers returned to this country only to get lynched? To not get a vote? To have the benefits of the GI bill withheld from them? Do they know how many current military and police are members of far-right white supremacist organizations? Do they care?
And again, for our team, it is not only about the military and police. Perhaps they think that is all ancient history and subscribe to “why is everything about race” and “pull yourself up by the bootstrap” narratives. Do they know the discrepancies across all aspects of life regarding the lives of Black Americans versus those of white Americans that currently exist? Health care, housing, jobs, pay, access to nutritional food options, the legal system, incarceration, poverty, climate change, violence, hate crimes, education, on and on. RACISM is in everything. Have they tried to come up with solutions to help these Americans realize the American dream? Have they advocated for policy changes to help their fellow Americans? Have they intentionally done anything to benefit the lives of Americans of color? Or do they only react when Black people do something that makes them uncomfortable, perhaps something that implies that America hasn’t been and isn’t perfect for all, or maybe it is that deep down they don't want to lose their place in America’s racial hierarchy? Have they sought out anything to provide them with exposure to Black experiences in America (at least outside of Larry Elder and Candace Owens)? Have they asked one Black person their thoughts on race in America directly? Ever? They are Americans too, no? Who exactly are our players disrespecting? Maybe our Black players know something others don’t, have experienced something others haven’t. Yet, this person emails us how our players are despicable and not good representatives of Penn? Have they no respect?
The thing is, the reactions that I have outlined led our players to respond, “this is only magnifies the reasons we are doing this.” There were other reactions too. A Florida State fan, after witnessing the interaction which I described, came down to apologize to the family. I spoke to a police officer in the arena throughout the night. He seemed like a good man. He mentioned that his daughter was a student at the School of Veterinary Medicine at Penn. I told him if she ever wanted to come to a game or if she ever needs anything, to please contact us. He said that he will be coming up to see her and will stop by the basketball office to say hello. I hold this man no animus, nor do any of the members of our team. There are opinions I have about the institution of policing that he may or may not share. I would love to talk to him about it. I know that our players feel similarly, that what they want is the conversation.
As a team, we have met and spoken about why we are sitting since our initial game. Our players are truly remarkable young men. It was emotional. Our team has both Black and white players, as well as players from other countries, and players of various socioeconomic strata. They are so respectful of each other and caring about one another’s opinion. One of our white players mentioned how he has learned so much from his teammates and has grown in his understanding of the perspectives of his Black teammates that he did not have before. Our Black players reiterated their reasons for why they want to sit but also said they would never do anything the team felt was detrimental to the group. One of the white players said he had initially felt that Kaepernick’s kneeling was disrespectful. He comes from a military family. After the discussion, he said with tears in his eyes that he wanted to join his teammates who are sitting. Some of the Black players thanked him but said that he should think longer about it before he does. In my opinion, that is love and that is what this is about. Another thing that struck me was when one of the Black players said, “I am so thankful that I am on a team where we can have these discussions and where I am allowed to make my own choice about sitting for the anthem.” Our head coach has been National Coach of the Year and has been to a Sweet 16 in his career. I have known him since I was 18. Through all of his accomplishments and all that he has done for me personally, the most remarkable thing I have witnessed is how he, as an almost 60-year-old white man, has been a part of the discussions and how he has been receptive to learning.
Hopefully, some people will read this and think twice if they are inclined to react negatively to our team sitting for the anthem. Hopefully, some people will try to understand our reasoning and seek out opportunities to be educated regarding some of the history of America that they do not know. We are all ignorant at times — that in and of itself is not evil. We all lack exposure to different experiences, cultures, points of view, and history in our lives. However, when you are confronted with the fact that you are ignorant, and you choose to remain indifferent, you are complicit.
NAT GRAHAM is the K. Gelb Family Associate Head Coach of the men’s basketball team. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.