Won Jung

More than a dozen members of the Yale football team joined a national protest movement at the intersection of sports, politics and race when they kneeled during the the national anthem before Saturday’s contest against Holy Cross.

While the vast majority of the 98-player roster stood with hands over their hearts during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” around 15 Bulldogs took to their knees in a show of solidarity with protests against police brutality and racial oppression. Originating in the National Football League over a year ago, protests during the national anthem have fomented division throughout the country in recent weeks. Members of Team 145, however, have repeatedly stated that they are supportive of one another’s beliefs and remain unified as a team.

“I support our players in anything they do to express themselves and their feelings,” head coach Tony Reno said. “We’re one family, and one of the unique things about Yale is we have people from all over the country and all different geographic areas and all different religions and whatever it is, but we embrace each other for who we are, and we are one football team.”

Discussions about potential protests this season began among teammates following Yale’s 49–24 victory over Cornell on Sept. 23, the same day President Donald Trump began tweeting his opposition to NFL players who opted to kneel to protest problems with the country’s criminal justice system.

Toward the beginning of Yale’s 2016 campaign, wide receiver Myles Gaines ’17 and tight end Tim Dawson II ’18 — who are both black — kneeled at the start of several games. Eventually, the team elected to keep its athletes inside the locker room during the anthem.

At the start of this season, head coach Tony Reno told the team that it would return to standing on the sideline for the anthem at the Yale Bowl, continuing a centuries-old tradition, according to Dawson. The Cornell game marked the first time the Bulldogs emerged on the field for the national anthem since that decision.

Reno’s declaration spurred Dawson to restart the protest discussions. The senior, alongside cornerback Malcolm Dixon ’20, defensive end Devin Moore ’20 and a handful of teammates informally spoke about the matter, before ultimately sharing their thoughts with the team in a group chat.

Dixon and Moore repeatedly said that their demonstration was not a “publicity stunt,” but rather a response to racism within the criminal justice system and the public at large. Both said that even at an institution like Yale, black students cannot escape the prejudice that spurred the NFL protests.

“Somebody tweeted, ‘You’re getting an Ivy League education, what do you have to complain about?’” Moore said. “Even here, it’s a reality — it’s not like it’s just some faraway part of America. It’s being a black person. It’s just something that’s very real. If we turned a blind eye to it or didn’t do something [about] it, it would be almost like letting it happen.”

For Dixon, the protest had little to do with President Trump or a paticular personal experience. He was motivated more by a sense of solidarity with fellow black Americans “going through tough times with oppression.” He nevertheless echoed Moore’s comment on the universality of racism.

“When I walk down the street, nobody sees a Yale football player, they see an African-American male,” Dixon said. “If the police pulled me over, they’re not going to say, ‘Oh he goes to an Ivy League school, he’s fine.’ … [But] we didn’t do this for us. We did this in support of the NFL players who are taking a knee.”

A minority of players kneeled during the anthem, while some of their teammates stood beside them in a show of support. The remainder of the team stood on the sideline at attention.

In contrast to the vitriolic and polarized national atmosphere, the Elis made a point of showing their unity on the issue.

“We’re a group of young men,” Dixon said. “We all have our beliefs, our ideas on how we want to do things, and everybody supports one another. We’re still a family. This is not polarizing us, there’s no bad-blood divide between the team. It’s not a publicity stunt, and as a team, nobody is upset or offended or felt attacked.”

Dixon and Moore both noted that they had engaged in respectful conversations about their views and motivations with teammates holding different perspectives on the issue.

For some players, this weekend’s demonstrations took on an added significance given the Yale community’s outpouring of support for Viviana Andazola Marquez ’18, whose father Melecio Andazola Morales is currently being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Colorado.

Defensive lineman Julian Fraser ’20, who is black, said he chose to kneel partly to express solidarity with Andazola Marquez and her father and partly to oppose the president’s policies.

“We just wanted to show that we are standing in solidarity and that we know that what [Marquez] is going through is rough,” Fraser said. “She has hundreds of other people behind her willing to stand by her.”

Saturday’s Yale protests reflect the wider movement spawned by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the first NFL player to kneel. Over the course of the 2016 regular season, increasing numbers of Kaepernick’s peers demonstrated during the anthem by either kneeling, linking arms or raising their fists. The demonstrations spread to other leagues and ignited a discussion over sports, patriotism and race that President Trump renewed in September.

Speaking at a rally on behalf of Alabama Sen. Luther Strange, R-Ala., Trump asked the crowd, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b—- off the field?’”

On Sept. 23, the same day as the Cornell game, Trump reiterated his call for kneeling players to be “fired,” and the following day he tweeted, “Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy.” In a subsequent tweet, Trump asserted that the issue “has nothing to do with race.”

That Sunday, the third week of the NFL season, teams across the league engaged in a wide range of protests and reactions to Trump’s divisive message.

Originally, most college football teams elected to stay neutral on the kneeling issue. It became common practice in 2016 for teams — including Yale — to stay in their respective locker rooms as the anthem was played.

But this year, the Bulldogs differentiated themselves from the college football mainstream with their decision to protest the anthem.

“[During] the Cornell game, we were out there, and this was an hour after I had finished watching some video of [Trump] talking about firing NFL players for [protesting],” Dixon said. “Why would I stand for a national anthem if the president of the United States doesn’t want people to practice their freedom of speech, freedom of expression? That’s disrespectful. I have nothing against the national anthem, it doesn’t bother me, but I support these people. I support African-Americans.”

The demonstrators said they plan on kneeling for the remainder of the season.

Yale travels to Philadelphia to face the defending league co-champion Penn on Saturday.

Won Jung | won.jung@yale.edu

Steven Rome | steven.rome@yale.edu