Opinion: Ole Miss coach’s support of kneeling players isn’t enough if he’s running away from the why

Opinion: Ole Miss coach’s support of kneeling players isn’t enough if he’s running away from the why

February 24, 2019

On his first day as the new basketball coach at the University of Mississippi last March, Kermit Davis revealed himself to either be one of those national anthem zealots who have spent the past couple years screaming about the platform Colin Kaepernick chose to bring light to racial injustice and police brutality in this country or a shameless panderer to those zealots, a large number of whom are presumably fans of the flagship school in a deeply conservative state. 

“We’re going to be a team that respects the flag and national anthem,” Davis went out of his way to say, unprompted and completely unaware that 11 months later eight of his players would kneel during the national anthem to protest a gathering of white supremacists and pathetic Confederate fanboys in Oxford this weekend. 

Davis’ proclamation about respect for the anthem last March was curious. Though the country has been embroiled in a debate allegedly about whether the anthem is a proper vehicle to raise concerns about issues — a debate the current president has weighed in on via Twitter numerous times and whose supporters cheerlead as a cultural wedge to vilify liberals — it hasn’t really made much of an impact in college sports. It’s been a non-issue in college football, where teams aren’t even on the field during the national anthem. A couple of women’s basketball teams have knelt, but it hasn’t happened on a stage or scale that suggests college teams were eager to mimic Kaepernick. 

Six Mississippi basketball players take a knee during the national anthem before their game against Georgia in Oxford, Miss. (Photo11: Nathanael Gabler, AP)

Nevertheless, Davis went there during his introductory press conference, reportedly receiving a loud ovation from the fans in attendance when he suggested that Ole Miss wasn’t about to be part of the kneeling crowd. In a subsequent interview with the Daily Mississippian, Davis tried to add some context from his time at Middle Tennessee State. 

More columns:Read more commentary from columnist Dan Wolken

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OLE MISS KNEELS: During anthem on day of pro-Confederate rally

“We agreed, in our locker room that the thing we were going to think about when the national anthem was played is that all men and women of all creeds — black, white, Hispanic, and Asians — who have lost their lives for our country and gave us the great freedom to play basketball on this day,” Davis said. “And in our locker room, they said ‘Cool coach, that’s good.’”

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If you take his words at face value, this wasn’t just some easy applause line but a core belief about what kind of behavior is appropriate and what’s not when the Star-Spangled Banner is played.

It would be instructive, then, for Davis to be able to explain what has changed for him between last March and Saturday, when he stuck up for his players who kneeled. In fact, it would be a major opportunity — both for the Ole Miss community, where the kneeling was controversial in some quarters, and perhaps for the country. 

After a 2 1/2-year national argument fueled by misplaced patriotism and phony outrage, wouldn’t it be something if a kneeling skeptic like Davis came out publicly and said that after seeing the true face of racism and how it impacted his community, his previous stance was wrong? That suddenly, he now understood what Kaepernick was doing and why it mattered? 

Several Players from @OleMissMBB kneeling for the national anthem. pic.twitter.com/3fLNXoiFm1

Already, Ole Miss players kneeling was the biggest story in college basketball Saturday. It was courageous, admirable and a strong statement that they’re tired of their university’s brand being co-opted by racists who have nothing to do with the place.

But in the all-too-typical college sports way, the mealy-mouthed, feckless administrators in charge couldn’t even do the right thing without fumbling their way through it, blowing the opportunity they’ve been handed to put their program at the forefront of an important conversation. 

Make no mistake: Davis and athletics director Ross Bjork had no choice but to support the players. Davis’ first season at Ole Miss has exceeded expectations in a pretty dramatic way, and his team is likely headed to the NCAA tournament barring an unfathomable collapse. Regardless of how Davis and Bjork might feel personally, taking a stand against the players — especially when they weren’t aware it would happen ahead of time — would only lead to one outcome.

“This was all about the hate groups that came to our community that came to try to spread racism and bigotry,” Davis said. “It’s created a lot of tension for our campus. I think our players made an emotional decision to show these people they’re not welcome on our campus. We respect our players’ freedom and ability to choose that.”

Here are Kermit and Breein Tyree talking about today's #OleMiss and #Oxford marches pic.twitter.com/5ErOAnGrFT

My question for Davis, though, is what’s changed for him? Because the entire conversation in this country since Kaepernick first kneeled has been focused on whether the anthem is sacrosanct for any kind of protest, a sentiment that Davis seemed to believe last March. 

Even though Kaepernick told us over and over again what he was protesting, insisting that it had nothing to do with respect for the military or the anthem itself, the owners who ran him out of the NFL and the fans who burned Nikes and claimed they’d never watch pro football again thought otherwise. 

The Ole Miss players were activated and motivated by the same belief that the best way to make their point was this dramatic and perhaps provocative act. That should be talked about. It should be celebrated. And perhaps it should be questioned.

Does it indicate that something has changed in the way many Americans view kneeling now? Does it vindicate Kaepernick’s original form of protest? Does it lay bare the idea that someone like Davis has evolved because of what he has experienced with his players? 

Those are productive things to talk about in the context of what’s happening in this country. And on Saturday, I reached out to the Ole Miss public relations staff and Bjork directly in an attempt to discuss those issues further. 

What I got back was an impulse to pretend what happened Saturday had no connection to the larger context of athletes protesting, which in effect strips all the meaning out of it. 

Bjork, who likes to position himself as a college athletics thought leader but has spent much of his career stumbling over and exacerbating various controversies, in fact disputed the very notion that Davis’ evolution (if that’s what occurred) was worth discussing. In a text exchange that grew testy Saturday night, he characterized that idea as a “big reach” and added that the kneeling had “nothing to do with the anthem.”

“This is about our community and campus,” he said. 

Of course, that is nonsense coming from someone who is trying to straddle a sensitive political line between the outrage many of his fans feel (just look at Bjork’s Twitter mentions) and the fact that supporting the Ole Miss players in what they did blows up the argument that the problem with Kaepernick was the manner in which he protested, not what he was protesting. If it was as simple as Bjork wants to proclaim, that this was merely a message to the racists in town and nothing more, why didn't the whole team kneel? Because it's more complicated than that, and perhaps, because everyone knew where Davis previously stood. 

No doubt this puts Ole Miss in a tough spot, especially since there’s a segment of its fan base that will scream about boycotts and be unsatisfied unless the players are punished. There is also a segment that realizes a school that didn't ban the Confederate flag from football games until the late 1990s and struggles to this day to shed all of its Civil War imagery (they are still the Ole Miss Rebels, after all) will never fully overcome its original sin unless it embraces moments like Saturday. Balancing those two things isn't easy. 

Ultimately, Ole Miss administrators did the right thing in backing the players. But what is that really worth if the school’s leaders aren’t willing to engage on the real reasons why?

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