A year after the Missouri football team threatened to sit out a game, new Tigers athletic director Jim Sterk says his school and others are better prepared if their athletes want to protest social issues.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand for the national anthem after a summer of unrest across the nation amid several highly publicized police shootings of unarmed black men. Other NFL and college players, including Rockhurst High graduate Michael Rose-Ivey of Nebraska, have knelt during the anthem in protest.
Missouri football players are in the locker room during the playing of the anthem at Memorial Stadium, but the upcoming start of basketball season — players are on the court during the anthem — could give athletes another avenue to protest.
Last week, there was another incident of hate speech on the University of Missouri campus, but Sterk said a proactive approach is important. Racial protests had been ongoing for several months last year at MU, including Jonathan Butler’s weeklong hunger strike, but the issue didn’t garner national attention until the football team’s boycott.
“Better preparation and education is what’s gone on,” Sterk, who was hired in August, said before speaking Thursday to the Tiger Club of Kansas City at the Westport Flea Market. “I think they (MU’s administration) learned from last year to engage the people that have issues. I think there was a lot of good dialogue last week. That all opened up, and I think there were some positives that came out of last year that really helps us move forward.”
Sterk regularly meets with Mizzou’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and also plans to have captains’ meeting with the leaders from all sports. He said the biggest lesson for the university was about being up front about social issues.
The day after a group of black students allegedly were called racial slurs by white students on campus, interim MU chancellor Hank Foley and interim vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion Kevin McDonald met with student groups to offer support and condemn the incident. The quick and compassionate response stood in contrast to last year’s slow response from MU’s former administration to reports of racism on campus.
“I think the end result (last week) was really positive, because of that action that they took,” Sterk said.
There isn’t and won’t be an athletic department policy that forbids players from social commentary, as it would be an unconstitutional infringement upon students’ civil rights at a public university.
“We’ll do our part as far as education — what it means, what the anthem means to a lot of people and what it would be perceived as — but yet honor what the student-athletes are interested in supporting,” Sterk said. “Where’s that fine line? I don’t know, but there’s a lot of good discussion going on and meeting with teams and the coaches. The SEC is sharing information within the league about what’s going on.”
Sterk expects the prospect of protests during the national anthem to be a topic of conversation during a meeting with Mizzou’s head coaches next week.
“That’s all that I think anyone can really do is have good dialogue and be aware and work with them and work through any issues that might come up,” Sterk said.
He said the Southeastern Conference athletic directors recently discussed the possibility of protests, but the SEC also won’t adopt a rule regarding them.
“That’s something that we, as a group, have discussed it,” Mizzou men’s basketball coach Kim Anderson said. “As the month goes along, I think we’ll continue to talk about it.”
It hasn’t been a “major topic” for the Tigers, Anderson said, but he understands that doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t become one.
“I really don’t have a stand either way,” he said. “I think our guys, obviously, they have the right to demonstrate what they want. We’ll talk about it as a team, and hopefully will come to an agreement as a team as to what would be if something needs to be done.”
For now, less than a week into practice for the 2016-17 season, Mizzou’s primary focus is elsewhere.
“We see it on TV and see what happens on Twitter, but we don’t bring it to the locker room,” sophomore point guard Terrence Phillips said. “Our mentality right now is just basketball. … Obviously, as athletes, we have a voice that we can use in those situations, but I think right now everybody is just focused on basketball.”
That doesn’t mean the Tigers have ignored the protests, including Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters’ raised fist during the playing of the anthem in the season opener.
“Of course, with that being a current world thing, it’s brought up and talked about,” sophomore forward Kevin Puryear said. “But, as a team, we haven’t really discussed anything like protesting or anything like that. Coach Anderson is not oblivious to what’s going on. He knows what’s going on and we know what’s going on. We discuss it, but we just haven’t gotten to that point as far as talking about what we want to do as a team.”