Bluefield College, a Baptist-affiliated school in Virginia, suspended its men’s basketball team for one game this month after players failed to heed administration warnings against kneeling during the National Anthem to protest racial injustice.
Media reports and statements from the college confirmed the Feb. 11 suspension and subsequent forfeiture of a scheduled game after multiple instances of kneeling by the team in January and February.
The team has since agreed to remain in the locker room during the anthem to avoid further suspensions, a decision that hasn’t deterred a social media backlash against the athletes. But neither the kneeling nor the called-for retribution will be tolerated, Bluefield College President David Olive said in a news release.
“At Bluefield College, we are challenging our campus community to move beyond symbolism to engage in constructive conversations and take action to create a better nation and tomorrow,” he said. “We also do not believe in cancel culture and walking away from our students, especially as they are growing and developing, as some have called for on social media channels.”
But the suspension was, in part, an effort to curtail further negative reaction, Olive said in a separate news release: “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 during the anthem in a positive way.”
According to a report by ESPN, the team agreed to remain in the locker room during anthems for the rest of the season to avoid further suspensions and forfeitures. The report said players will seek other ways to protest against police brutality and racism.
“It’s bigger than us, and we don’t want to have the season taken away from us.”
“It’s bigger than us, and we don’t want to have the season taken away from us,” senior Stanley Christian said in the ESPN report. “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.”
The players also expressed concern that the college, which is in covenant with the Baptist General Association of Virginia, has trampled on their Constitutional rights.
ESPN reported: “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.”
Olive confirmed that conversation took place and that he addressed the free-speech concerns.
“As I shared with the team and these other students, you give up some of those rights when you step foot on our campus,” he said. “We are a private entity, not a governmental entity. 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.”
“When someone puts on a uniform or is performing a function on behalf of Bluefield College, that person is now representing Bluefield College.”
Olive said such restrictions go even further for those representing the school in sporting events. “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.”
Neither the college nor the nation will make progress on racial issues without honest attempts to communicate and to seek common ground, he said, adding his belief that kneeling won’t get that done. “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.”
The school has offered the athletes a number of other ways to express their speech rights, Olive said. These include using the PA system before games to read statements condemning racial injustice and taking a knee either during player introductions or at tip-offs.
“I will kneel with you anywhere at any time as an expression of my solidarity with you to bring about racial justice and equality, except during the National Anthem,” Olive said. “I am with you. The college’s leadership is with you. With God’s help and his endless mercy and grace, we will make a positive impact in raising awareness of racial injustices and bringing about change.”