Luke DeCock

On Silent Sam, UNC athletes are just starting to flex their muscles

The rise and fall of Silent Sam

Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.
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Silent Sam has stood on UNC-Chapel Hill's McCorkle Place for 105 years. On Monday August 20, 2018, it was brought down by protesters.

When Garrison Brooks and K.J. Smith became two of the more than 200 current and former North Carolina athletes to denounce the university’s plans to build a $5 million shrine to Silent Sam, they tapped into influence they may not have known they had.

If at any point a majority of their men’s basketball teammates were to join them and threaten to take some kind of action, this whole debate might change very quickly. The basketball team has that kind of power. It just hasn’t been activated in Chapel Hill in a long, long time.

As it stands, it’s going to be hard for university leaders to dismiss the anger of this growing group of principled and determined athletes from across all sports. Athletics is more important to the university than the academic world would ever care to admit, and having such a wide cross-section of athletes from varying sports and diverse backgrounds demanding action isn’t going to help the university’s image – or its recruiting.

Basketball is different. It would take commendable courage and fortitude for the 35 active members of the track team who signed the petition to boycott a meet over Silent Sam, but the boosters whose opinions and wallets matter won’t be sitting courtside the way they are at the Smith Center.

A threatened basketball boycott would hit home. And hard.

It would push important people to consider how vital the continuing deference to Silent Sam and his defenders is to them compared to how vital Carolina basketball is to them.

And we know, politically speaking, basketball has power in North Carolina.

If it wasn’t for the threat of losing several years of NCAA basketball tournament games – after losing one year of NCAA events already – House Bill 2 might still be on the books in the state. The NCAA’s intervention (and, to be sure, its willingness to stand on its principles) was critical in forging the compromise between a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature that led to a path forward. It’s no coincidence the eventual deal to replace HB2 was announced at the Final Four (although it was a coincidence North Carolina’s basketball team was there).

In many ways, these North Carolina athletes are awakening to something college athletes around the country are slowly discovering: They have, by virtue of their sports, tremendous power. What they may lack in financial recompense from their universities they have in clout thanks to their importance to their universities. They’re the reason the games are on television, not the people who cash ESPN’s ginormous checks.

That’s the case with the lawsuits making their way through the courts attacking the NCAA’s phony “amateurism” model. That was the case at Missouri three years ago, when the football team eventually forced the resignation of the university’s president because of its willingness to stand up against systemic racism on campus. While that successful action didn’t spark a new wave of athlete protests, as some expected at the time, the potential has always been there. As it was at North Carolina in 1992, when the intervention of members of the football team played a critical role in the founding of what is now the Stone Center for Black Culture and History.

North Carolina’s football team doesn’t have a lot of pull in this situation. Its next game is almost nine months away, it’s a lot harder to find consensus among 100 athletes than it is a dozen and the repercussions for any kind of activism in the NFL are real and consequential. Asking players to risk their draft status and potential careers on something like this is asking a lot, although more than 15 have signed on individually, including future NFL players like Anthony Ratliff-Williams and Michael Carter among several returning starters.

But the men’s basketball team is in the midst of its season, with attention at its highest. It’s a smaller group with an easier path to common ground. No league acknowledges the power of its players – on every level – the way the NBA does. And it already has the support of prominent former players like Kendall Marshall (a UNC student coach at the moment), Harrison Barnes, Brice Johnson, Bobby Frasor and Tommy LeGarde.

If North Carolina’s basketball team were to decide that Silent Sam is important enough to take some kind of action, some kind of protest, even threaten to boycott a game if it comes to that, the entire battleground would shift. It’s their university, too, and they have the right to do whatever it takes to exert whatever force they can muster.

And a basketball team at a basketball school can muster almost irrepressible force if it chooses to do so.

The basketball players might not have that kind of power acting alone, but they would have the support of so many of their fellow athletes on campus and prominent alums, including Olympians and NBA and NFL players. The others have laid the foundation and opened the door. The basketball team has the means and the opportunity to carry that banner onward most effectively.

The power is there for those players to seize, if they want it.

And even if they don’t, for all of these athletes, their courage in taking a stand for what they think is right, for trying to make the university the kind of place they want it to be, for being willing to question what is clearly a misguided vision for the school, for putting their names on the line, for not sticking to sports, is inspiring in itself.

Perhaps the powers that be at UNC will listen to their opinions with the same vigor with which they applaud their athletic exploits.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.