The Gonzaga women basketball players endured some tough calls during Sunday’s narrow loss to Stanford.
But perhaps the harshest came from a few of their own fans, who yelled and heckled while several players knelt during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner.
After the game, Coach Lisa Fortier said she was “a little bit disappointed in some of our fans.”
“We love our veterans, we love our military, we are in good support of that,” Fortier said. “It has nothing to do with hating our country.”
The practice of kneeling before athletic events goes back to 2016, when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick did so to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
The issue caught the nation’s attention again in the spring of 2020, following the death of George Floyd in police custody.
As the protests spread to Spokane that summer, Fortier joined them.
“It told me that what I’ve done to be supportive hasn’t been enough to move the needle to support Black athletes, their families and their dreams,” Fortier said at the time. “That’s something I can do to show support, to peacefully protest the racism that exists in our society.”
That fall, many college athletes around the country began to kneel during the national anthem as a symbol of protest.
That included the Gonzaga women and also the men’s basketball team at Washington State. The day after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the entire Cougars roster took a knee before a game at California.
“Basketball aside, it’s really important what’s going on in this country right now and very divided right now I feel like,” WSU guard Isaac Bonton said at the time.
The Cougars decided to kneel as a group.
“Just as we do as a team, find ways to get better and win, we’ve got to do that as a country,” Bonton said. “Find ways to come together, instead of be divided.”
Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team has not knelt during the national anthem this season.
Fortier said she and her staff have made a point of discussing social issues with the GU players – “just continuing the conversation as part of their education,” Fortier said last summer.
Last season, several GU players chose to kneel during the anthem, while others stood. However, because of the pandemic, they did so in the vacuum of an empty Kennel.
When the new season began, fans began to notice. Some responded with letters to the editor and posts – critical and supportive – on social media.
The critical voices erupted again on Sunday.
Even in a crowd of almost 6,000 at the Kennel, the catcalls were clearly heard as the singer, KHQ news anchor Claire Graham, began the song.
The point, Fortier emphasized on Sunday, was that each player has made a personal choice: “The kneeling for the anthem that some of our players are doing is in regards to the social injustice and racial issues that still exist in our world.”
Most of the kneeling players were foreign-born, while most born in the United States stood. Fortier and her three assistants also stood.
“And I think they rallied from the few people who called out,” Fortier said. “And again I’m disappointed, but not something that our team seemed to be too affected by, because as you know obviously you know we are doing different things.”
“Some people are standing, some people are kneeling, but we are united in the reason behind that,” Fortier said.
Other college athletes have received stiffer pushback than a few catcalls.
Last week during a match at Nebraska, Maryland volleyball player Rainelle Jones continued her practice of kneeling during the national anthem.
There was a brief silence before the singer performed “The Star-Spangled Banner” when a spectator yelled to Jones “stand up, you piece of trash.” Then a few more people made sniping remarks that echoed throughout the arena.
Elsewhere, schools have been threatened with loss of funding should they allow athletes to kneel during the anthem.
At WSU, Athletic Director Pat Chun said he was fully supportive of the decision made by the Cougars men.
“They’re empowered to make decisions for the right reasons, and I support them 100% if their will and desire says that’s how they want to peacefully send a unified message out,” he said.
Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh did not respond Monday to a request for comment.
However, McCulloh expressed support last year for the university’s efforts “to address racial justice across the curriculum and co-curricular programming in the Jesuit tradition,” encouraging us to “work together to be better and to do better.”
Wrapping up her comments about the pre-game controversy, Fortier tried to reach out.
“Hopefully we can get fans behind that idea, and we can starting having conversations about fighting the injustices there are in the world,” she said.
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