Bluefield College basketball players have decided to stay in the locker room during the pregame playing of the national anthem for the rest of the season rather than risk the potential penalty of additional game forfeitures, forward Stanley Christian said Friday.
A day after the Virginia school forfeited its NAIA Appalachian Athletic Conference game against Reinhardt after suspending all players for kneeling during the national anthem before several games in January and February, Christian said the players met and agreed to salvage the team's season but have no intention to refrain from speaking out against racial injustice and police brutality.
"It's bigger than us, and we don't want to have the season taken away from us," the senior from Norfolk, Virginia, told ESPN. "We feel like we're in a great position to bring this school a title. So we'll stay in the locker room during the national anthem. They don't want any more backlash, and we would definitely take a knee during the anthem."
In a statement Thursday, school president David Olive announced the suspension of the entire team after players knelt for the anthem prior to their Feb. 9 home game.
Christian said the team "had a couple of meetings" and decided to kneel for the anthem in January as a response to the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. Players knelt before several road games, but Christian said it was only after local media aired a story on the protests that the school told them to stop.
Olive said in a statement that he had tried to work with players to find other avenues to voice their concerns while not upsetting "our alumni, friends, and donors of the College," but Christian said the players were not satisfied with Olive's suggestions and believed the school simply wanted to force them out of the public eye.
"In that meeting we had with him, he wasn't really hearing us out at all. We tried to tell him our side of the story, and it was like we were talking to a wall," Christian said. "He showed us he didn't care in the meeting, so we were going to stand up for what we believed in. They wanted us to do it their way so they didn't have to deal with media or people outside Bluefield."
Christian said players specifically referenced a large rally recently held on the campus in support of former president Donald Trump, which stretched from the school's basketball arena to the football stadium, and during which Confederate flags were flown, as an example of the school allowing forms of protest on campus previously.
"So it's OK for everyone to have a Trump rally with Confederate flags, but it's not OK for us to kneel for our people who've fallen," Christian said. "He didn't have an answer for that."
On Saturday, a school spokeswoman told ESPN that Bluefield was not host to any part of a Trump rally and indicated that one was held on town roads adjacent to the college that had no affiliation with the school. She said Olive told students he understood the proximity of the rally to campus was upsetting to many students and expressed his apologies for the fact that the rally had occurred.
After the suspensions were announced, players from the Bluefield men's basketball team, along with others from football, women's basketball and women's soccer, joined a video call to discuss their options and vent frustrations over the sense that their First Amendment rights had been violated.
In Olive's statement, he specifically addressed those concerns.
"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."
Christian said he was frustrated by that response and argued that the players' position on the team should not determine their ability to speak out against racism.
"Dr. Olive told us our rights are limited when we put Bluefield across our chests," Christian said. "Well, that jersey is basically shackles to us. Now we feel like we're chained up now, and that's not right. And when that jersey comes off us, we're still Black in America, and I have to face that reality."
One Bluefield football player walked out of practice Thursday in protest of the suspensions, as well, and football player Collin O'Donnell, a military veteran, released a statement of support for the basketball players. Christian, too, said he grew up in a military household and his grandfather is a veteran.
"We're not disrespecting the flag or the country. That's not our intentions," Christian said. "People assume that because they're not trying to understand why we're doing it."
Christian said he's hopeful the public debate over the protests will force Bluefield to enact important changes, including hiring more Black faculty and staff and establishing more student groups to discuss and engage on important issues of social justice.
Bluefield's next game is at home Monday against Milligan University.