Bluefield College forfeits NAIA men's basketball game after players suspended for kneeling during national anthem

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An NAIA school in Virginia forfeited its men's basketball game Thursday after suspending players for kneeling during the national anthem before several games in January and February.

In a statement Thursday, Bluefield College president David Olive said that after players knelt before multiple games in January and February, even after he'd told them to stop, he decided to suspend all athletes involved, which resulted in a forfeit of the NAIA Appalachian Athletic Conference game against Reinhardt.

"The basis for my decision stemmed from my own awareness of how kneeling is perceived by some in our country, and I did not think a number of our alumni, friends, and donors of the College would view the act of kneeling during the anthem in a positive way," Olive said.

In the statement, Olive, who is white, recounted an ongoing discussion with coaches, players and the school's athletic director, Tonia Walker, who is Black, over kneeling during the anthem, but suspensions were handed down only after media reports surfaced last week.

Olive said he became aware on Feb. 1 that players had knelt during the anthem for the previous home game and later learned that the same had occurred in two prior road games. At that point, he informed coach Richard Morgan that kneeling during the anthem would not be tolerated.

This stands in direct contrast with what the basketball team was told before the season, according to Bluefield football player Jewels Gray, who is close with many members of the basketball team and has discussed the suspensions with players. Gray said the basketball players were told they were not allowed to release a statement of their own or speak to the media.

"Why would our school contradict what they said?" Gray said. "We had meetings before the season with [the athletic director] and the president, and they stated that we can kneel and they'd support and be behind us, 100 percent."

A Bluefield College spokesman denied Gray's statement and said neither Olive nor Walker ever offered approval for student-athletes to kneel during the anthem.

Players again knelt during the anthem before their Feb. 2 game, ignoring the order. For the following game, on Feb. 4, Morgan kept the team in the locker room during the anthem to avoid further controversy.

Olive said he reached out to Morgan and members of the team to discuss the protests, saying that he understood their message and supported calls for racial justice -- but he did not condone doing so during the national anthem.

"I further told them that their intended message in bringing awareness of racial injustices was being diluted or completely lost because some saw their act of kneeling as being disrespectful to the flag, our country, and to our veterans," Olive said in the statement. "In my opinion, their message was not being heard."

Olive said players told him they had no intention to be disrespectful and shared personal stories of racism they'd faced. In response, Olive said the campus leadership team is currently working on a forum to discuss racial inequality.

At the team's next game, on Feb. 6, the team again remained in the locker room, but on Feb. 8, a local TV station showed video of players kneeling as part of a news story. The following day, Olive said the school released a statement, that included input from the players, responding to "erroneous and, at times, maligning information being shared about our student-athletes and college."

That night, however, players again knelt for the anthem before Bluefield's home game against Tennessee Wesleyan. After the game, Olive informed Morgan that there would be "consequences."

"It goes without saying that this has been a challenging process for all parties involved," Olive said in Thursday's statement. "I have heard and I understand the perspective of our players as to why they desire to kneel during the National Anthem. I also know this form of protest immediately shuts down a number of individuals from listening to the intended message because of their perspective regarding the flag. No individual's sincere motives are inherently wrong. But I continue to contend that we will not get to where we want AND NEED to get as a country in addressing these racial issues without making honest attempts at creating pathways that bring people together for a common cause."

Olive said in his statement that players inquired about their First Amendment rights being violated, and he informed players that those rights did not apply to this situation.

Athletes from the men's and women's basketball team, football team and women's soccer team all joined a video conference discussion this week, Gray said, arguing that their First Amendment rights had been violated and discussing ways to address the school's policy.

"We are a private entity, not a governmental entity," Olive said in his statement. "We have policies and guidelines throughout the student handbook and the academic catalog that limit certain rights you otherwise might have elsewhere, such as in your home or in a public venue. The most important to me as it pertains to this matter, however, is what I shared earlier. When someone puts on a uniform or is performing a function on behalf of Bluefield College, that person is now representing Bluefield College. Heightened expectations are now placed on that individual as to what s/he can and cannot do or say as a representative of the College."

Walker, Morgan and the Bluefield student affairs director have not responded to ESPN's request for comment.

In the aftermath of the suspensions, Gray decided to support the basketball players by staging a walkout during football practice. Bluefield is playing a spring semester schedule because of COVID-19, and with a game set for Saturday, his coach hoped to avoid a serious disruption of practice. Gray agreed that he would be the lone player to walk out, leaving others who'd agreed to protest to stay and practice.

Gray then posted a photo of his protest to Twitter, which was retweeted by several members of the Bluefield basketball team.

"I didn't feel like the football team should practice when the basketball team can't play, just because they stood up for what they believe in," Gray said. "I peacefully protested practice, but I didn't ask anyone else to leave practice with me. I stood up before [the team prayer] and spoke and made them aware of what was going on. I know we all have one goal."

Gray's teammate, Collin O'Donnell, who is a military veteran, offered a statement from the entire football team Thursday.

"Over the past few days, Bluefield College athletics has been put center stage in our locality over both the kneeling during the national anthem as well as the subsequent decisions made following it," O'Donnell wrote. "As a football team, we can not be blind or deaf to the social issues within our country & the deep divide we collectively face in addressing them head on. This week we talked amongst our team and expressed that despite outside forces or conflicting opinions, we remain one unit, indivisible. One of the hallmarks of our constitutional republic is our first amendment right; this ability to peaceably hold different beliefs and opinions while living our truth are what makes us unique and separates us from those in our world who look to silence others on issues which are uncomfortable to face.

"As a team, we are focused and dedicated to one another. We go out of our way every season to make real, positive changes in our community. Whether we agree or disagree on the way which express our concerns ... when we step on the field we are one unit, one family and we believe in each other."

In 2018, according to racial enrollment data provided to the National Center for Education Statistics, 61% of the school's student population identified as white and 21% as Black.

"Most of the student-athletes here are African American," Gray said, "but the city and the community -- if you look at the comments [O'Donnell] is receiving on Facebook, people are putting him down so bad. All types of ugly comments. The city and the community of Bluefield College really have a lot of people who need to be opened up to this. I'm not saying they have hatred in their hearts, but I feel like they need to be opened up to what's going on."

An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed Bluefield racial enrollment data to a 2019 school census and erroneously stated that nearly 84% of the school's student population identified as white and more than 10% identified as Black. 61% of the school's student population identified as white and 21% as Black, according to 2018 racial enrollment data provided to the National Center for Education Statistics.