Michigan student-athletes protest racism throughout football season

Sunday, November 20, 2016 - 7:38pm

Over the past few weeks, protests calling for action against discrimination on campus and nationwide have swept the University, drawing thousands. More than 100 times that number — about 110,000 spectators — watched the football team beat Indiana this weekend at The Big House, a place that can seem a world away from student activity on campus with its cameras and fanfare. This football season, however, student-athletes have bridged the gap on a number of issues, using their platform to call attention to social issues like racism and police brutality through demonstrations of their own.

University football players and cheerleaders have followed in the footsteps of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began kneeling during the national anthem in late August in protest of racism against Black Americans. Michigan student-athletes have raised fists or taken a knee during the national anthem in nearly every game this year, beginning with the Sept. 24 Big Ten conference home opener against Penn State. National outlets from ESPN to ABC covered the players’ initial actions and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh’s subsequent remarks. Though it’s been two months since athletes first began demonstrating in this way, at every game, the fists still go up, sometimes even without attention from the cameras.

Priscilla Huddleston, an LSA junior and cheerleader, said she feels she cannot ignore the platform she has on the field during the national anthem. Leading three other teammates, Huddleston was the first student to take a knee and raise her fist.

“It’s historically been the athlete’s position to empower their community,” she said. “It’s sparking conversations in classes. I only have a platform for four hours … I only matter in uniform, and I have to use that time and make it count. I have a block ‘M’ on and I’m not just supposed to wave a pompom and cheer you on. You can’t expect me to be silent. I didn’t understand how much of a platform I had until now.”

Demonstrations at the University mirror similar actions by athletes at both the collegiate and professional level across the country. Huddleston recalled a discussion with All-American senior cornerback Jourdan Lewis — who, along with senior tight end Khalid Hill, outside linebackers senior Mike McCray and freshman Devin Bush and freshman inside linebacker Elysee Mbem-Bosse  participated in the demonstration — before the Penn State game. She said she and Lewis noticed a feeling of hypocrisy during the national anthem, especially in the wake of a series of fatal police shootings of Black Americans.

“Don’t sing this song, and a Black man just died. I haven’t sang (the anthem) since Ferguson,” she said, referring to the non-indictment of the police officer who fatally shot Michael Brown. “(Lewis) wasn’t sure if he wanted to do it at first, but then he and other players looked at the actual words of the national anthem, and did it because they didn’t feel comfortable with it. I did it because I didn’t feel comfortable with the actions of law enforcement. Jourdan and I both said, ‘You know what, this is disrespectful against our people.’ ”

The University Athletic Department did not make players participating in the protest immediately available for comment, but in a press conference after the Penn State game, Lewis noted his long-standing frustration with racism in America not only in the recent climate following the election, but more generally throughout time.

“It’s not just this week, it’s the whole mess,” he said. “Regardless of anything, I'm going to stand up for injustice. That wasn’t disrespecting anything. I love this University. I love this country, but things can get better.”

Harbaugh, who originally opposed Kaepernick’s “method of action,” reversed his position at the same press conference. He later clarified, saying that he supports Kaepernick's motivation, but not his approach.

“Because I am the football coach doesn’t mean I can dictate to people what they believe,” he said. “I support our guys. I think this is something — it’s not going away, it’s going to keep happening."

Michigan cheerleading coach Pam St. John supported the protests from the start, facilitating team conversations about the actions and blocking some cameras to protect her athletes from backlash. The cheer team’s number of minority cheerleaders has grown in the last few years, and both St. John and students said this has contributed to a more inclusive environment.

“I went to school here and came during the end of the Vietnam War during a time of civil unrest,” St. John said. “This is part of the culture that I believe is the University of Michigan. My first instinct is to protect my student athletes … my opinion is that that’s their right to do that as part of freedom of expression and freedom of speech. It’s my responsibility as an American to protect that.”

“I’ve never felt tokenized because of my coach, and she protects me,” Huddleston said. “My teammates stopped and listened (about the protest).”

In contrast to the football and cheerleading coaches, marching band directors released a policy on “student self-expression,” banning band members from engaging in demonstrations during performances. In an email statement, directors wrote the policy, dated Sept. 30, was a preemptive measure against student disruption.

“Their work as a band is nuanced and coordinated — any personal expression would disrupt the band’s overall performance,” the statement reads. “Band members would be held accountable for displays of expression during a performance.”

Neither marching band members nor directors were available for direct comment.

University President Mark Schlissel’s 49-unit Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategic plan, released in October, includes a sub-plan created by the University Athletic Department focusing on minority recruitment, diversity and cultural sensitivity training for coaching and management staff and improving the literacy of student-athletes on the DEI objectives.

St. John said student action this year demonstrated both the urgency and necessity of diversity education in athletics.

“Staff and coaches were out in front of this with the DEI plan,” she said. “Any time awareness is brought, it fortifies the action.”

Kaepernick’s original protest drew objections from many pundits and commentators accusing him of a lack of patriotism and of disrespecting the national anthem. While most criticism of University participants has been relegated to social media, teams have still reckoned with internal disagreements. In an interview, defensive end Ron Johnson, an LSA freshman, voiced personal disagreement with the fist raising, but emphasized the team’s overall support.

“Players did it of their own will,” he said. “I want to show respect for people who fight for our country … I’ve been singing the national anthem all my life, and I just think there’s other ways of going about it. We haven’t talked about it as a full team, but every game they still keep doing it.”

Huddleston pushed back against the idea that the demonstrations disrespect those who serve the country, recounting her experience kneeling before the Oct. 22 homecoming game against Illinois.

“I started freaking out because the Navy was right in front of me, and I have family members in the military and I know how hard they work,” she said. “I jumped out of line and went up to someone in uniform and cleared it with her, and made sure she knew it was not me trying to disrespect her and her sacrifice for her country. I heard her talking to her coworkers about it after and they were saying ‘No, that’s extremely brave of her.’ It shouldn’t be that brave to protest something you believe in. People in the Navy almost die, and for one of them to say that, we need to reevaluate how we feel about our First Amendment rights.”  

Student-athletes have also been invoked in other protests on campus this year, with student organizers calling out the assumption that Black male students are athletes, with a group at a September protest saying, "You cheer us on the football field... we are more than your money."