Rams take a knee in solidarity: Players protest racial inequality at Cortland game

Five FSU football players took a knee or raised a fist during the national anthem at the game against Cortland State on Sept. 9, said Darian Belizaire, defensive tackle and co-captain of the Rams. 

He said players chose to do so as part of a silent protest against police brutality and racism in America. “There has never been a right away for African Americans to protest about the unfair treatment we have in this country. The highest platform you can take is taking a knee during the national anthem.”

He added some players plan to take a knee during the anthem at the game at Fitchburg State on Oct. 6.

Belizaire and Tom Kelley, head coach and director of athletics, declined to identify three of the players who knelt at the game.

On Sunday, Sept. 24, in response to comments made by President Donald Trump, over 200 NFL football players took a knee or locked arms in unity while the national anthem played.

Trump called for NFL team owners to fire “any son of a bitch” who didn’t stand and salute during the anthem.

Following the NFL kickoff at 1 p.m., Trump tweeted he was in support of players locking their arms together, writing, “Great solidarity for our national anthem and for our country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”

In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, started the protest in response to police shootings of African-American men.

Aynsley Rosenbaum, assistant football coach to the Rams, said he doesn’t understand why some view taking a knee as disrespectful.  “I took a knee when I asked my wife to marry me. I kneel when I go to church. Players at the end of a game take a knee when the coach talks to them,” he said. “I think, of all the ways you could stand up for a cause or protest something, it’s very respectful.”

He said he supports the players who chose to protest. “The football team is the highest minority population on campus. … I’m sure some of them, if not all of them, have experienced some form of racial inequality.”

Rosenbaum added, “The thing that separates us from other campuses is we are really mindful and respectful of everybody. Our LGBT+ community, our minority community, our white community – we’re all really respectful of each other. … I think if you’re on this campus for a while, you’ll see we’re one of the more open and understanding campuses.”

Julie Marie Donahue, a junior, said, “I think every player should take a knee – plain and simple. Racism is as American as football, so them trying to protest racism is seen as them attacking patriotism. The United States was founded in hypocrisy.

“They were fighting for freedom because they felt oppressed, yet they were denying the same right to freedom for people of color. As unfortunate as it is, there was no such thing as freedom unless racism is added to the mix,” she added.

John Ambacher, political science professor and free speech expert, said the reason players are taking a knee is being “lost in the politics.” It is not about “loyalty” to the flag or the anthem. Players are trying to address racial inequality in the United States.

He said Trump is “playing to his base” to gain support from his followers.

“The whole purpose of the first amendment is to criticize the actions of the government. Otherwise, the first amendment doesn’t make any sense,” Ambacher added.

Khaniel Bruce, junior and wide receiver for the Rams, said he’s been kneeling at the beginning of games since last year as a way to raise awareness about racial inequality in the United States.

He said over the summer, it became “more real” for him when he was shopping in a store with friends and the manager of the store accused him of stealing after he had made a purchase.

“Me and my friends were in an aisle – we weren’t the only ones in the aisle. There were others,” he said. “A manager came over to us and basically accused us of stealing. We had bought stuff, so why are you accusing us of stealing when no one said we had taken anything?”

Bruce said kneeling during the anthem is a peaceful way for him to address an issue that is largely ignored. He said he hopes people understand it’s not done out of disrespect.

He asked that those who are offended put themselves in the shoes of the oppressed. “How would you feel if this was continuously happening to you or someone you know?”

Kelley said was unaware multiple players were going to take a knee during their Cortland game.

Last year, when Kelley first heard that Kaepernick had taken a knee during the anthem, he was “upset. I thought he was being disrespectful.”

He added, “I’ve been trying to listen to as many people as I can about their opinions of this. It all comes back to black rights and I can respect that. This all makes sense. … It’s all about police brutality on blacks. I heard veterans on different programs and the veterans don’t have a problem with that.”

“I wasn’t upset with the players who chose to kneel at the [Cortland] game. I was curious as to why. I wasn’t going to be upset – as long as they had the right answers,” he said. “They all did. They said they had great respect for our country and for our flag and each of them had a separate story and agenda.

“I haven’t walked in their shoes and I haven’t lived in their skin, but I certainly can respect what they’re doing,” he added.

Belizaire said he chose not to take a knee in respect of a friend from high school who served in the military, but chose to raise his fist as the anthem played.  He said his friend didn’t support taking a knee and Belizaire wanted to “meet him halfway” with a raised fist.

He added the issue of racism is still relevant in our society and this is one of the many ways for African Americans to protest inequality.

“Nobody that I know who has taken a knee … is taking a knee specifically to disrespect the troops. The men and women put their ass on the line every day for us, so I would hope none of us would blatantly disrespect them,” he said.

Belizaire said the NFL is one of the only platforms to protest where the message will be heard.

He added, “While we’re still in this country – the land of the free and the home of the brave – there’s nothing free. Black young men are still getting shot down by bad cops. I’m not going to say all cops, because not all cops are bad. Nobody is taking notice to it. People are shoving it under the rug.”

Karl Bryan, student trustee, said, “The people who are kneeling are far more patriotic than anyone who is blindly pledging allegiance to a flag. There are problems in this country and no one can deny that, so if you are trying to bring attention to the problems to fix them, that shows more love for your country than ignoring the problems.

He added this is an issue about race, “even if people say it isn’t. The message that is sent is that black people need to shut up and sit down and wait for their rights to be granted by someone else.”

He said, “Also the idea that sports are not the place for politics is simply unfounded. Jets fly overhead. We are told to support the troops and salute the flag. All of that is political, but because it is politics the conservatives like, they have no issue with it.”

Nicole Bray, a junior, said, “I believe that those participating in it have every right to do so. Someone doesn’t have to agree with what they are doing and that is OK, and I understand why others are upset about it. They argue that they are disrespecting the military and that is one person’s opinion, but they also have to understand that they can’t force anyone to not take a knee.”

She added, “The military fought for our right to stand or kneel. And those kneeling aren’t trying to disrespect our military – they are fighting for the social injustice in the country they call home.”

Zak Walker, senior and starting quarterback for the Rams, is a military police officer with the Army National Guard.

Walker chose not to kneel or raise a fist. He said, “I think they’re exercising their right to a peaceful protest. A protest that has been clarified as not being against the military or those who have sacrificed everything for this country, but a protest against social inequality and police brutality.”

Senior Logan Hennessey said, “I obviously cannot speak for why they personally kneeled, but I think that it’s an effective way to continue to bring awareness to the issues that Kaepernick first knelt for – racial inequality, police brutality and a flawed criminal justice system.”

He added, “It’s a shame that our president thinks otherwise, and that athletes should be fired for expressing their beliefs. The only way to make change in this country is for people to speak up for what they believe in. Athletes should use their platform to bring about change in our country.”

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