Four Covenant Basketball athletes will kneel during the national anthem this season in a protest against racial oppression.
The protest began when football quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down and later kneeled during the national anthem this past August, in a silent protest against racial injustice and police brutality. The protest has swept the entire nation with other professional and collegiate athletes taking the same stance. The kneeling gesture has also been met with disapproval, especially from families of troops.
Basketball player Berto Dryden (‘19), has been planning on kneeling during the anthem since before basketball season started.
“I was just going to do it,” Dryden said. Before he put the plan into action; however, Basketball Coach Arte Culver asked him whether he planned on it. The two talked, and decided to tell the team.
“Thinking about it now I’m glad we did,” said Dryden.
Three others, Z Arima (‘17), Will Portlock (‘17), and Jordan Walker (‘20), decided they will kneel alongside Dryden after much conversation and reflection. Not all agreed to follow the gesture, but the rest of the team will lay their hands on their kneeling teammates.
“Rather than putting all attention on me and distract our main goal as a team, now we’re all on the same page. Even for people who aren’t kneeling, we’re all on the same page,” Dryden said.
“The basketball team is the most diverse group on campus,” Portlock said. “And with that we’re all standing together. I think that’s beautiful and that’s what it’s supposed to look like - even when we’re in heaven praising God with every tribes and nations.”
“It’s a way of saying, ‘I am not going to kneel, but I’m still behind you,’” Arima agreed.
Dryden started thinking of initiating the protest on campus because of his experiences as a teenage African-American male.
“I haven’t been the subject of police brutality, but I’ve had instances with police officers,” Dryden said. “I’ve been pulled over with my little brother in a car. And it scared him. It’s a world I don’t want to live in.”
Now going to school in a predominantly white college, Dryden believes that initiating the protest will start a conversation and bring awareness to what’s going on in the world outside of Covenant.
In an effort to put action behind his words, Dryden is starting the Mcrae-Zellner project, a program for African Americans and others who are interested to fellowship, discuss difficult issues, and serve communities surrounding Lookout Mountain together.
“I think at a time like this when people are persecuted, it’s powerful if black people go to other communities and serve, even in a predominantly white area like Dade County and Lookout Mountain,” Dryden said. The community service he envisions also involves serving police officers whom he has been in conversations with.
“There’s always two sides of the story,” Dryden said. “I know not every police officer is brutal. Right now there is an image put on all police officers, and there is an image put on all of the black community.”
However, not everyone agrees with what Dryden and myriads of other athletes are doing, or not doing, before games. Some raise the question about why the protest has to be during the anthem.
“If you have family in the military—it’s difficult not to get angry,” a Covenant senior, also an athlete, said. The student has family ties to the military. “The heart behind it is great. It’s a noble cause. But even if they do it for completely the right reasons, I think what needs to be considered is how it’s perceived.”
The student contended that the protest has distracted the audience into debates about the method instead of bringing attention to racial issues.
“I understand now that they’re kneeling not to offend the country, but to stand up for more freedom [that troops are fighting for]” the student said. “But most people perceive it differently, and for those who has faced the death of a loved one in the military, that’s difficult.”
While protest against any kinds of injustice should occur, the student argued that there should be a better way to protest - one that doesn’t distract from the real issues.
“If people are just stepping on this bandwagon of this new way of showing racial sensitivity, then I think there’s gotta be a better way,” he said.
After making the decision to kneel during games, Portlock talked to family members and relatives who are in the military about his plan. His brother-in-law in the navy explained to him why it seems disrespectful: when a fellow soldier died, a flag is put over their casket, making it the last image one sees before a friend gets buried.
Portlock said that he understands where they’re coming from, but explains his decision.
“For me, I respect the troops and what they do. I’m protesting what the country is standing for. All men created equal, all men are free, but many actually aren’t. I just want to live by the values of this country,” Portlock said. After several conversations, his relatives accept his conviction.
“I understand where they’re coming from, but I don’t think they understand where we’re coming from. And that’s ok. I understand why they don’t understand,” Dryden said. “The best thing to do is to try to help them to understand [our story]. That’s why it’s necessary to do it now.”
In defense of the protest, some of the proponents said that, for a quiet protest to be effective in generating conversation and change, it has to cross a line and appear offensive.
After Dryden’s conversation with Coach Culver, the case was presented to the athletics department, which then presented it to Brad Voyles and Sarah Ocando, Dean and Associate Dean of Students respectively. Student development fully supports the freedom of students to lead peaceful protests.
“We want to figure out how to protect student’s 1st amendment rights. For us, it’s more about making sure students have the freedom to express things,” said Sarah Ocando, Associate Dean of Students.
Schools across the country are responding to these silent protests by keeping athletes in locker rooms during the national anthem at sporting events. In response to these reactions, Ocando said, “It felt unnecessary to us. We trust our students more than that. It’s a good chance for dialogue across campus, and we’d rather have things out in the open in that sense.”
While informal conversations has happened around campus, the Athletics Department and the Diversity Program brought Dr. Carl Ellis, Associate Pastor for Cultural Apologetics at New City Fellowship, to give a background on the issue last Thursday, Nov. 3. Students, athletes, faculty and staff joined the talk and later asked follow-up questions.
Ocando mentioned that while she is sure students have been involved in protests off-campus, this is the first time in recent history that students have been involved in an on-campus protest.
“I’m encouraged by people’s willingness to listen to each other even when people aren’t sure what they think or are confused,” Ocando said.
Dryden himself is surprised by how much support he is getting. And while the basketball team did not have the chance to kneel at their first game at UTC, they will start their protest at home next Thursday against Emory University.
After all, “[Covenant] is a bubble, and there is a need for reconciliation,” Dryden said.