athlete activism

Nebraska's Michael Rose-Ivey (15), DaiShon Neal (9) and Mohamed Barry (7) kneeling during the national anthem before the game against Northwestern on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.

On Sept. 24, 2016, former Husker football players Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry and DaiShon Neal took a knee before a road game against Northwestern.

The three were showing solidarity for a worldwide movement of peaceful protest during the national anthem led by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to highlight police brutality and racial inequality in America.

Kaepernick’s protests inspired athletes across the country to do the same, along with starting an important discussion about social injustices in America. It also sparked strong opinions either for or against his actions on social media. That staunch division was extremely prevalent in Nebraska when Rose-Ivey, Barry and Neal decided to protest.

The three had the backing of then-head coach Mike Riley who said, “It was the right thing to do — because it’s their right” with regards to how he and his coaching staff handled the situation.

There was nowhere near enough support, though.

The list of negative and vile comments hurled towards Rose-Ivey, Barry and Neal could fill a book. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts called their actions, “disgraceful and disrespectful.” Former University of Nebraska-Lincoln Regent and Omaha Mayor Hal Daub said the players, “should know better, and they had better be kicked off the team.”

Others stooped lower.

Rose-Ivey said that, in the days after the game, he had received death threats on Twitter and Facebook. In a moving press conference the Monday after Nebraska’s win over Northwestern, Rose-Ivey said that some fans said “we deserved to be lynched or shot just like the other black people that have died recently.” Another said they should “be hung before the anthem for the next game.”

Rose-Ivey kneeled for the national anthem two more times in a Nebraska uniform in games against Ohio State and Iowa. Barry and Neal remained standing, as Barry felt he and Neal had done what they intended to do by starting a conversation about racial inequality. 

Those outside the program generally disagreed with Barry’s assessment, as evident by the threats the three men received. However, another athlete-led protest against injustice was much more well-received by the UNL community. 

In 2018, the Nebraska men’s basketball team led the “Hate Will Never Win” campaign after a video highlighting former UNL student Daniel Kleve’s white nationalist beliefs surfaced. The disturbing footage from the January video sees Kleve refer to himself as “the most active white nationalist in the Nebraska area” and talk about his propensity for violence.

Kleve also revealed that he had participated and marched with alt-right group Vanguard America in the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. The rally lives in infamy for being the largest gathering of white supremacists in the U.S in over a decade.

“On behalf of the Nebraska basketball team, we would like to deliver a message against racism that encourages positivity,” then-senior guard Evan Taylor said. “The message that we want to send is that hate never wins, and to spread love.”

Every member of the basketball team tweeted the phrase, “Hate Will Never Win.” The team wore shirts donning the same phrase during pregame warmups along with patches on their jerseys. Then-head coach Tim Miles attended a protest at the Nebraska Union. 

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green did not expel Kleve, citing First Amendment protections. However, the incident did kick-start more conversations on campus about racial inequality, hate speech and peaceful protest.

When classes resume in the fall, those conversations will be more important than ever. Not just at UNL, but at college campuses nationwide. 

The senseless killing of George Floyd on May 25 at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department is another example of African-Americans being failed by a system sworn to protect and serve all people. Floyd’s passing sparked outrage on social media, and peaceful protests calling for justice for Floyd and an end to police brutality began in cities nationwide. Those protests still continue at the time of this column’s writing.

I’d like to reference a quote from Kaepernick from August 2016 that is relevant right now.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Floyd’s killing, and others like it, is exactly what Kaepernick was talking about with that quote. It’s exactly what Rose-Ivey, Barry and Neal were protesting while so-called Husker “fans” called for them to be lynched.

I’m far from the first person to compare what Kaepernick was protesting to recent events in America. A picture that Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James shared on Instagram has made the rounds on social media over the past several days. It’s the horrifying image of former officer Derek Chauvin crushing Floyd’s neck with his knee coupled with an image of Kaepernick kneeling for the national anthem.

The caption reads, “This is Why.”

As student-athletes return to campus to begin preparation for fall sports, coaching staffs will be met with the task of creating a dialogue about Floyd’s passing. For example, Nebraska men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg said that he would be holding a team meeting when his team returns to campus to “come together and make positive change.”

One of the best ways that an athlete, especially a college athlete, can make a stand is by engaging in some sort of peaceful protest. It could be taking a knee during the national anthem. It could be making a social media post. It could be wearing a t-shirt or patch on a uniform. All are valid, powerful forms of protest, and all of these examples and more will almost certainly be on display when sports return on college campuses.

It’s up to university leaders to decide how to respond. 

Let me be perfectly clear. I don’t have all the answers in this scenario. I am in no position to tell people how to react or respond to Floyd’s death.

What I do know is this: it’s time for people to understand and become more aware of the struggles African-Americans face in modern society. Millions of people failed to understand where Kaepernick, Rose-Ivey, Barry or Neal were coming from with their anthem protests four years ago. People turned to hateful rhetoric and divisive language instead of trying to have a meaningful conversation. 

That cannot happen as athletes continue to use their platforms to speak out against injustice. We live in a country that has repeatedly failed African-Americans and other minorities for hundreds of years. If the events of the past week haven’t opened enough eyes to realize how true that is, then this issue will never fade.

If or when Nebraska athletes decide to peacefully protest, I’m asking for fans, university leaders, students and outside observers to be peaceful, respectful and understanding. Having uncomfortable conversations about race and inequality in America is one of the best ways to start working towards change. 

Student-athletes are much more than athletes fans cheer for during a game. They’re much more than sports heroes that fans ask for pictures with or autographs from. They’re real-life human beings that have opinions and want to use their platform to call out injustice.

In those efforts, they deserve as much support off of the field as they do on it.

This issue is much bigger than the result of any sporting event. It’s an actual matter of life or death, death that stems from public servants abusing their power against innocent people. It’s a matter that impacts everyone, no matter your race.

In 2016, Nebraskans would’ve received an overwhelming “F” when it came to the stade-wide response to Rose-Ivey, Barry and Neal’s anthem demonstration. That cannot happen again. 

The best way to be a Husker fan right now is to listen. Listen to what these student-athletes are saying. Listen to their stories. Listen to why this movement and message is so important for all people to listen to. 

The bottom line here is simple. We live in a country where ideas can be freely shared and discussed. Opinions and viewpoints are allowed to change — it’s one of the greatest aspects of America.

But too often, a differing opinion is seen as a deep-rooted strike to the values the dissenter holds near and dear to their heart. Too often do people turn to the lowest common denominator instead of having meaningful conversations about others’ viewpoints. We have to be better than this.

Because hate never wins.