As the women’s team from Gonzaga lined up Wednesday night for the national anthem, fans had every reason to expect another ugly scene: There would be catcalls and boos from the stands after some of the GU players kneeled.
Not this time.
Instead, the screens above the McCarthey Athletic Center floor offered a message from the GU players before the national anthem and tipoff against Washington State University.
Crafted during a players’ meeting on Monday, it was a message of hope, unity and reconciliation: Hope that society can find a better path toward social justice for everyone; unity, because the players have acted as one, regardless of whether they have stood or kneeled in previous games.
And reconciliation with offended fans – no easy feat in today’s political climate.
“All people should be treated with respect,” “promote justice for all,” and “create a more inclusive society for everyone” were some of the messages shared by GU student-athletes during the roughly 40-second video on the jumbo screens.
The crowd reacted with almost universal applause.
After a moment of silence to reflect on the change the players hope to inspire, the Gonzaga Army ROTC presented the colors and the anthem was sung. The players and more than 3,000 fans stood as one.
Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, started kneeling during the anthem in 2016 to protest racial injustice, and the gesture has been a hot-button issue ever since.
Lana Weber, a Zags fan from Spokane Valley, said the video was a way to bring attention to the country’s social justice issues. She said she hopes the team develops a new method to bring awareness each week.
“The disrespect shown is by people who dishonor those girls’ right to speech,” Weber said.
She said the players don’t dishonor anything by kneeling.
“They are loving their country enough to want to fix what’s not great about it,” Weber said. “There are things that definitely need fixing, and they just want to draw attention to it and fix it. What higher love of country is there?”
Another fan at Wednesday night’s game, Jack Bizzell, said the players have the right to kneel but he feels it’s offensive to veterans. They can protest in a more appropriate way and place, he said.
“I think they should stand,” he said.
Married couple Ron and Eileen Briggs said kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful to the flag, country and military.
“I don’t think the flag has anything to do with the Black Lives Matter movement and all of that,” Eileen Briggs said.
Ron Briggs said the video was done well and the players expressed positive messages.
“Social justice is something we really value, and we want to fight against the social injustice that is happening. We’re hopeful that our fans accepted it and want to fight with us,” senior guard Abby O’Connor said after the game.
Earlier this week, Thayne McCulloh – sports fan, U.S. Army veteran and president of Gonzaga University – spoke of the need to listen to fans on both sides of the debate.
McCulloh said that he, athletic director Chris Standiford and others have been doing that for several weeks.
Gonzaga heard the message, positive and otherwise, through letters to The Spokesman-Review, emails and on social media. A few felt strongly enough to stop attending games.
Objections have centered on three main points: That kneeling while a color guard is standing at midcourt is disrespectful to both the military and the flag; that players should find a better way to express their feelings than at a basketball game; and can’t we just enjoy the game?
Backers argue that respecting the flag means respecting the right to speak out about some of the things happening in the land where that banner flies.
McCulloh said he respects all points of view but said that vocal displays “call into question the choices that some fans are making.”
“In some cases, the fans who are upset, they may be adding to the situation in very nonconstructive ways,” McCulloh said.
McCulloh also talked about the duty of a Jesuit university to encourage critical thinking.
“We want them to find their voice,” McCulloh said of students.
“If we don’t allow and support their being able to give voice and express their belief, obviously again in ways that are peaceful and constructive, then the words of our mission statement are hollow,” McCulloh said.
McCulloh pointed to the last paragraph of the university’s mission statement: “The Gonzaga experience fosters a mature commitment to dignity of the human person, social justice, diversity, intercultural competence, global engagement, solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, and care for the planet.”
McCulloh emphasized the link between those words and the actions of the women on the university’s basketball team.
“Racism exists in Spokane, and systematic racism exists in our society, and for that matter all around the world,” McCulloh said. “The fact that our students, who are studying these issues and are immersed in trying to do the work of building a better world, are going to be engaged in different way to do that, should not be a surprise.”
McCulloh also noted that prior to kneeling at earlier games, the players reached out to members of Gonzaga’s ROTC program.
And while he said he could not speak for the ROTC members, McCulloh said that as a veteran, he has “always believed that it is the opinion of at least some in our ROTC department that one of the primary functions that the military serves is to protect the freedoms that our citizens enjoy.”
McCulloh also tried to offer a middle ground that may prove hard to reach for some.
“It is possible to both deeply respect the uniformed armed forces and the role that they play … and still say there are some things about our country or our world community, that are deeply troubling still,” McCulloh said.
Coach Lisa Fortier and two of her players, Kaylynne Truong and Yvonne Ejim, made similar points Thursday night after the Wyoming game.
“We don’t hate our country, but we recognize that there are things that need to be improved,” Fortier said. “We love our military and our veterans, and we know that they support us at our games.”
Fortier also spoke about the team’s emphasis on inclusion.
“To our program, inclusion means celebrating our differences, of race, or gender,” Fortier said. “Opinion is one of those things. We try ask our players to listen for understanding, and then ask a question and say ‘tell me more about that.’ ”
Truong, who stands for the anthem with hand over heart, said she also is standing up for her teammates who kneel.
“Although I stand, I am in full support and I respect my teammates’ opinion,” said Truong, whose twin sister, Kayleigh, also stands.
“I don’t think some of our fans understand why our players are kneeling. I do, we did sit around and told each other why.
“(Kneeling) doesn’t take away that there is still discrimination and social injustice in the world that we need to talk about,” Truong said.
Staff writer Garrett Cabeza contributed to this report.
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