Flag Football: How A Silent Gesture By 3 Black Huskers Loosed a Storm of Racism, Threats, And Hate

Nebraska is normally as placid as the Platte River that flows through it. But when three members of the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football team kneeled during the national anthem last Saturday night, the river turned to blood.

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This is what Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal, and Mohamed Barry did. After one of them let the coach know what he planned to do, the three dropped to one knee during the national anthem, linked hands, and prayed. That's it. When the anthem was over, they and their teammates took the field and beat Northwestern 24-13. Go Big Red!

Despite Coach Mike Riley's swift and deft endorsement of the players' right to express themselves, Husker Nation saw red. The milder among them called for the student-players to be expelled. Donors threatened to cut the program off without a dime.

But it gets worse. Normally adoring white fans loosed the N-word, and some called for the players to be lynched. That is no mere metaphor. There are Nebraskans alive today who were born before the last lynching in the state. At least, I hope it was the last lynching.

And it gets even worse: Gov. Pete Ricketts, who talks endlessly about freedom, jumped right into the controversy on a Monday night radio show. With unwitting irony, he declared: "Generations of men and women have died to give them that right to protest. I think the way they chose to protest was disgraceful and disrespectful." Yes, kneeling and praying. So disrespectful.

Hal Daub, a former mayor of Omaha who now serves as an elected regent of the university, reinforced this self-negating view of freedom, telling the Lincoln Journal-Star that student-athletes "are not supposed to do things that create disparagement or negative implications."

"It's a free country," Daub told the Journal Star on Tuesday. "They don't have to play football for the university either. They know better, and they had better be kicked off the team."

Not one word from the outraged about the deaths that prompted the players to kneel. Not the slightest acknowledgment of racial injustice or police brutality in our country.

So much for Nebraska nice.

But there's still a chance for sanity and civility to win the "game."

To their credit, Coach Riley and University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds have stoutly resisted calls to sanction the players.

To their even greater credit, the three young men have responded to a gusher of race-baiting and threats with measured steps and respectful words. Rose-Ivey asked the governor for a meeting, and a startled Ricketts had no better choice than to agree. Meantime, Rose-Ivey addressed the media with a remarkable statement. Here's just a part of it:

I want to thank Coach Riley, the administration, this university for allowing me to step out and speak on my beliefs on my own behalf. As everyone is aware, this past Saturday, before the game against Northwestern, DaiShon Neal, Mohamed Barry and myself kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and many other athletes across the country, both professional and non-professional, who are standing together to use their various platforms to bring awareness about police brutality and the recent deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers.

As we looked at what's been going on in this country, the injustices that have been taking place primarily against people of color, we all realized that there is a systemic problem in America that needs to be addressed. We felt it was our duty to step up and join the chorus of athletes in the NFL, WNBA, college and high school using their platforms to highlight these issues.

We did this understanding the implications of these actions, but what we didn't expect was the enormous amount of hateful, racially-motivated comments we received from friends, peers, fans, members of the media and others about the method of protest. While you may disagree with the method, these reactions further underscore the need for this protest and gives us just a small glimpse into the persistent problem of racism in this country and the divisive mentality of some Americans.

To make it clear, I am not anti-police, I am not anti-military, nor am I anti-American. I love my country deeply and I appreciate the freedoms it professes to afford me.

Amen, brother.

Fellow Nebraskans, just what do you imagine freedom is? Apparently, some believe it to be so sacred that it should be kept in a locked cabinet and only brought out to ceremonially endorse the traditional order. But such freedom is meaningless. If the Constitution does not protect the right of students to stage a silent, non-disruptive protest on a college campus, then the whole freedom thing is a sham.

Fellow Americans, how can you fail to recognize that if a such a dignified, prayerful protest evokes howls of racist fury, complete with epithets and calls for lynching in a city named for Lincoln in the heart of the Heartland, we really do have a national problem on our hands?

Fellow white people, look in the mirror and ask yourselves: if you lived in a black-majority nation and police routinely harassed and all too often shot unarmed members of your community, would you sit silently by? If video showed that police sometimes lie about the need to shoot an unarmed civilian, would you assume that it rarely happens?

Nebraskans are known for their pragmatism, as well as their civility. This ugly episode has torn a patch off both, but many of my fellow Huskers remain decent and sympathetic human beings. For their sakes, as well as for three thoughtful and courageous black football players, I hope that cooler heads prevail.

For one thing, the future of Husker football is at stake. Despite what blowhards like Daub might say about the "privilege" of being a Husker, players earn their way onto the team, and they generate vastly more revenue for the university and the state than their piddling scholarships cost. How do you imagine recruiting will go if the haters get their way? Maybe all the future Huskers will look like their mascot, "Lil Red."

But this goes way beyond football. If Michael, DaiShon, and Mohamed are forced off the team or harassed into leaving, we will have given them an education that no American should ever be taught again.