College football players at times can seem disconnected from the news events of the day, wrapped up in the cocoon of team meetings, practices, the start of class, preparations for a new season.
But that might be harder this year, with protests and counter-protests about Confederate statues, a nation divided over its politics and President Trump, and an unemployed NFL quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who became a football lightning rod for refusing to stand during the national anthem before games last season.
As North Carolina defensive tackle Aaron Crawford said, “What a difficult spot for the country.”
A few weeks ago, white supremacists clashed with protestors in Charlottesville, Va., with three people killed in the aftermath. At issue was a plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, and there have been similar protests over other statues, including the “Silent Sam” statue on the UNC campus.
Crawford was touched by both protests. Crawford is from Ashburn, Va., and has family and friends who live in Charlottesville. He also has friends at UNC who were at the Chapel Hill Silent Sam protest and said he considered attending before deciding against it.
Crawford said UNC coach Larry Fedora, in a team meeting, recommended the players not attend the Silent Sam rally and protest because of the attention it could generate.
Fedora said he wouldn’t have prevented athletes from going, but wanted his players to give the coaches a heads-up if they decided to attend.
“It’s up to them,” Fedora said. “All I ask is that they don’t surprise me. As long as they communicate it with me so that I know beforehand, that’s all I ask. But we talk about it. There wasn’t anybody that wanted to go.”
Policy on behavior
N.C. State opens the season Saturday in Charlotte against South Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren, who routinely keeps his team in the locker room until after the playing of the national anthem, was unsure if the teams would be on the field this week for the Star Spangled Banner.
Asked if he has a policy for player behavior during the anthem, Doeren said, “I’m not allowed to prevent the first amendment. I think our players understand I have a lot of military in my family and how I feel about it, but I can’t prevent somebody from their speech rights. I can’t do that.”
Doeren said he has held no team meeting to specifically address the Charlottesville incident.
N.C. State offensive lineman Tony Adams, a senior from Charlotte, said the Wolfpack players do discuss social issues. At the same time, he said, it’s hard to get a true feel for what’s happening from social media, which he said can be distorted and biased.
“I just hope the whole situation gets better, that the world comes together, more than anything,” Adams said. “Because if we keep fighting against each other, who knows what kind of external problems will come.”
A year ago, some of the national debate centered on Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, who kneeled during the anthem before games – a protest, he said, for the disproportionate number of unarmed blacks where were killed by police.
“People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody,” Kaepernick said last season. He left the 49ers after the season and remains without an NFL job.
Others followed Kaepernick’s lead, and not just athletes. Several members of the East Carolina marching band – the “Marching Pirates” – took a knee and refused to play the anthem before the Oct. 1 game against Central Florida. They were booed by many ECU fans in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.
The outcry against the band’s protest by ECU alumni was so strong that university officials instructed the band that such behavior would not be tolerated at future games. Chancellor Cecil Staton issued a statement saying, “While we acknowledge and understand the disappointment felt by many Pirate fans in response to the events at the beginning of today’s football game, we urge all Pirate students, supporters and participants to act with respect for each other’s views.”
The ECU band handbook includes a contractual agreement requiring band members agree to adhere to the university policies.
“No matter what you think about it, we’re seeing a kind of awakening,” said Dave Zirin, the sports editor of The Nation magazine who has authored books on sports, protests and politics. “It’s an athlete saying, “Holy crap, we really do command attention and we can really do something.’ It’s people who often had a feeling of powerlessness starting to feel a sense of power. It’s like the fight is being joined.”
Spokesmen at Duke, UNC, N.C. Central and N.C. State said there was no athletic department policy about player behavior during the national anthem or a policy concerning participation in social protests.
Like N.C. State, the Duke and UNC players are not on the field during the playing of the national anthem.
“We can always seek equality as a society but it’s not easy to do,” Duke football coach David Cutcliffe said. “But when you go on that game field, guess what? That’s called equal opportunity. It doesn’t work otherwise. It’s one of the beauties of sports and I want them to celebrate that.”
Cutcliffe says the commonality bonds his players. But just miles away from the Duke campus, in downtown Durham, protestors gathered to pull down a confederate statue, resulting in several arrests for the destruction of public property.
Duke senior cornerback Bryon Fields Jr. said the players have had conversations about it, saying, “We’re a part of the Durham community.”
At the same time, Fields added, “Especially during camp we’re kind of sheltered off. We’re here all day. Working all day in meetings. So we don’t get to deal with that as much.”
Where is this all headed? Good question, Zirin said.
“Where this is headed is entirely dependent on what happens in the real world off the field.... “What I think you’re seeing with these players when you talk to them and hear what they have to say, they’re responding to the moment. They’re responding to what they’re seeing in their social media feed. They’re responding of what their friends are saying more than just doing this on their own. It’s a very much an authentic and human response to what’s happening in the world.”