OXFORD, Miss. — Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork looked down onto The Pavilion court shortly before Saturday’s tipoff with Georgia.
First, it was sophomore guard Devontae Shuler who kneeled to the floor during the national anthem. Then, Brian Halums, Luis Rodriguez, KJ Buffen, D.C. Davis, Bruce Stevens, Breein Tyree and Franco Miller Jr. shortly followed.
As the anthem ended with a few boos from fans, Bjork took a few seconds to digest the scene, turned to Kyle Campbell, the associate athletic director for communications, and said, “We need to go to work.”
The two headed to a conference room inside the arena with several other staff members to gather as much information on why the eight players — all of color — were kneeling and how to address it with them, their coaches, the media and fans.
Since former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick first took a knee two years ago to raise awareness of racism, social injustice and police brutality against people of color, the peaceful and legal form of protest has been maligned by many across the U.S. as a sign of disrespect to the country, its flag and its military. And that disparaging narrative has unwarrantedly defined the “kneel” since, regardless of an athlete’s motivation.
Which brings us back to the “work” and the “why” last weekend in Oxford.
At the same time Ole Miss players had taken the court for the start of the anthem, a pro-Confederate rally was taking place on campus, and some athletes were put “on edge” by a video posted a few days earlier by one of the rally’s organizers, Billy Sessions.
Bjork quickly put the pieces together and knew he had to provide “the resources to talk through it, figure out how to move forward and be supportive of one another.” He first informed head coach Kermit Davis and his staff at halftime and talked to players after Saturday’s game. That’s when Tyree made it clear: The team’s demonstration was a direct result of the pro-Confederate rally.
“Man,” Bjork said, “I remember seeing his face, he was like, ‘It’s happening during our game! We don’t want those people here. That’s why we did it.'”
The fact a kneel drew national attention is not new. What was unexpected: the public support from officials of a university that has been steeped in its own ugly history with racism. Even more of a surprise: the support from the town has sparked hope that the players’ actions will create more dialogue and tangible change around race relations and the Confederate iconography that is still a visible part of Oxford’s history.
Consider that the university did not see its first black athlete suit up until 1970. Ole Miss’ first black football players arrived two years later. It didn’t ban Confederate flags at football games until 1997, and its mascot, Colonel Reb, who depicted a Confederate army colonel, wasn’t scrapped until 2003. And Confederate symbols, like the emblem on the Mississippi state flag and the Confederate/Civil War battle anthem “Dixie,” wouldn’t be phased out until over a decade later. Other problematic signs still remain: an on-campus Confederate monument and buildings named after people associated with white supremacy.
But there was a common refrain among the players this past week: They knelt because they want people to realize that, in their eyes, the rally is not what they and their school represent.
‘The students are teaching us something’
Fear escalated around town and on campus in the days leading up to the march. Some parents implemented curfews for their children on Friday and Saturday night. A few students told ESPN that they feared for their safety with the groups in town, remembering the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, while student leaders told classmates to stay away from the university if possible.
The rally went on as planned Saturday. The pro-Confederates marched from the Confederate monument that stands right outside the city courthouse to another Confederate monument at the Circle located near the Grove, which is about 200 yards from the Ole Miss basketball arena.
“We’re just tired of these hate groups coming to our school and portraying our campus like we have these hate groups in our actual school,” Tyree said after Saturday’s 72-71 victory against Georgia. He added to those comments via Twitter: “To the people that fight for this country, my teammates and I meant no disrespect to everything that you do for us, but we had to take a stand to the negative things that went on today on our campus.”
To the people that fight for this country, my teammates and I meant no disrespect to everything that you do for us, but we had to take a stand to the negative things that went on today on our campus. #WeNeedChange
— Breein Tyree (@Breety5) February 23, 2019
“This was all about the hate groups that came to our community to try spread racism and bigotry,” Kermit Davis said. “It’s created a lot of tension for our campus. Our players made an emotional decision to show these people they’re not welcome on our campus, and we respect our players’ freedom and ability to choose that.”
The supportive response in a Mississippi town in the heart of the Deep South was somewhat of a shock.
People within the community rallied behind the players. There were no demonstrations in retaliation toward the players, and Stevens and Terence Davis both said they felt supported, on and off campus.
“I’m really, really was proud of the guys for doing it,” said Ole Miss alum Andy Dickson, who watched the pro-Confederate rally from the square. “Here’s the deal: If they had posted [a form of protest] on social media, if they had said anything during the postgame interview, maybe some people would have saw it.
“Those kids had a national audience at that moment and they were not going to have it at any other time. By taking the knee at that moment, they maximized their voice. They gave themselves the best opportunity to be heard. If they do that protest at any other time, it’s not on Twitter Moments, it’s not on ESPN.”
Bjork said he wasn’t asked much about the protest during a speaking circuit earlier this week, but there has been some backlash. While Twitter exploded with negative comments directed at the players and administration last weekend, Bjork said he received around 200 emails on Saturday and Sunday; he estimated about 75 percent of them were negative toward the kneeling. He said that slowed Monday and Tuesday. The Daily Mississippian reported Monday that University of Mississippi Foundation President Wendell Weakley received only one note from a donor who is retracting his or her donation in response to the protest.
“I guess we’ll see when it comes for renewal time,” Bjork said of possibly losing fan support.
On campus, sophomore Nakiyah Jordan said she felt better about the school she calls home after leaving tiny Soso, Mississippi, to pursue an art degree, because of the positive and supportive response from her classmates and administrators.
“It’s comforting to know that maybe it’s not as close as it feels sometimes because of the symbols that are on campus,” Jordan said. “For the most part, the students here want to be proactive and progressive about these situations.”
Ole Miss senior Jarrius Adams, who works with various leadership groups on campus and organized a peaceful Black History Month march on campus last Thursday, believes the community’s reaction would be vastly different and more negative if it weren’t for the pro-Confederate rally.
“I was thrilled,” Adams said of seeing the players kneel. As president of the school’s gospel choir, he led members in raising their fists in solidarity at the end of the anthem during the Ole Miss women’s basketball game last Thursday. “I wish I was a basketball player so I could do the same thing. Unfortunately, if I kneel in the stands, no one will see or care.”
Dr. Donald Cole, who was kicked out of the university as a sophomore in 1969 for protesting the lack of black faculty members and athletes and the university’s waving of the Confederate flag, recently retired from Ole Miss after serving as the school’s assistant provost and assistant to the chancellor concerning minority affairs. As he sat in his backyard earlier this week, a fresh bloom on a small tree rising just above his head in the sun, Cole saw himself in those players.
“Why should they jeopardize themselves over something that should not have happened or disappeared years ago? I thank them,” Cole said. “The university should thank them and Oxford should thank them. It should make us a little more resolved to do our job so that they won’t have to do it for us.
“This time, the students are teaching us something, and they taught us well.”
What comes next?
Ole Miss head coach Kermit Davis and guard Breein Tyree explain the decision to kneel in protest of the hate groups on the Ole Miss campus.
No one was sure what to expect when the Rebels returned to action Wednesday against Tennessee, their first game since the protest. It was a mixed bag at first.
Students wrapped around the building’s corner more than an hour and a half before the game, and their section was full 45 minutes before tipoff, while other patrons still filed into The Pavilion during the first half. There was no protest, as the entire team stood for that night’s playing of the national anthem. (Terence Davis and Bruce Stevens said kneeling was a one-time situation.)
The energy inside the arena didn’t really materialize until Davis threw down a monster, one-handed dunk over Tennessee’s Yves Pons to cut the Vols’ lead to one just under 10 minutes into the game. The raucous crowd stood for the final three-plus minutes of what ended up being a heartbreaking 73-71 loss. Tyree missed a late free throw, while a controversial charge call on Shuler sealed the result and led fans to throw debris onto the court in disapproval of the officials.
“I don’t think there were any distractions,” Kermit Davis said Wednesday. “These guys handled it well.”
Since Saturday, Bjork said his priority has been the players’ well-being. He said he’s tried to make sure they have the resources needed to talk about what happened and how they’re coping mentally. He’s even asked players if he should bring speakers in to help.
Although players weren’t made available to the media before Wednesday’s game, Bjork insists he didn’t put a gag order on them or force them to stop kneeling during the anthem. He said he has talked with some players, but hasn’t met with them as a whole because he doesn’t want players to feel he is being “heavy-handed in any way,” or pressuring them into something.
He also said he would support his players if they decided to kneel in the future, but added he’d want to help them craft a clear message for their reasons.
“They have the right to express themselves and I think Saturday was the main thing that spurred this on for them,” Bjork said. “In talking to our young men, they’re ready to move forward and they want to be united as a team and focus on basketball. … We can all argue the platforms in doing that, and people are going to agree or disagree, but they have the right to express themselves and be supportive of a cause.”
Some student leaders on campus are hoping to work with the athletic department on inclusion around some of their on-campus causes. Bjork said he was open to the idea. What happens next could be more important than what the Rebels players did Saturday.
EJ Edney, who serves as an advisor and mentor for mostly students of color at Ole Miss, worries about a seamless and swift return to normalcy. Supporting the players was great, he said, but his frustration is that Monday arrived and no one wanted to talk about Saturday — not the kneeling but the Confederate rally.
To Edney, the players’ display should be sparking more conversation about how to make sure they don’t have to do kneel again and that the pro-Confederate groups do not return.
“Business as usual isn’t progress,” Edney said.
To Cole, the fight goes well beyond removing and moving controversial images, but that has to be an area where people on campus immediately focus their attention.
“The Southern symbols are no longer any type of an asset,” Cole said. “They are a deterrent to our educational system here in Mississippi. You can no longer say that those symbols are heritage alone. We have done the research, and we know when those symbols were put up and why those symbols were put up. We know what those symbols mean as a result of being up.”
The athletes’ protest has spurred at least one prominent local to put pressure on the local administration.
Former Oxford mayor Richard Howorth, whose iconic bookstore, Square Books, directly faces the Confederate statue on the square, wrote the current mayor earlier this week to offer suggestions on how to create a nine-person committee — three from town, three from campus and three from Lafayette County — to study and discuss how to move the statue from the square.
“Living in or being from Mississippi because of its complex, troubled past is often annoying and even depressing,” Howorth said. “But having the opportunity to participate or feel that you’re participating in moving that forward makes it worth living here.”
Black student union president Jarvis Benson said he hopes cognitive dissonance toward minority issues in Oxford doesn’t halt the conversation once the dust settles from Saturday and the momentum pushes the university for more minority scholarships to boost enrollment, increased wages for black workers on campus, increased black faculty and staff, and more resources for mental health specifically for black students and faculty.
Benson and Adams did acknowledge the recent important advancement for people of color in leadership roles on campus, including the vice chancellor for diversity, assistant vice chancellor for diversity, the director for the center for inclusion and cross-cultural engagement, the new general council and the chief of police. Black mentorships and the center for inclusion have also grown over the past four years. Time will tell if the hires will improve the diversity gap among students — in 2017-2018, student enrollment was 76.7 percent white and 12.8 percent black.
“Everything that happened last week [during the game] helps us have those conversations,” Benson said. “This is a place that is grappling with its history but is there’s a lot of room for change and a lot of room for growth as an institution. Here, it’s the perfect storm all the time.”
This storm has somewhat weathered some players, though. Neither Stevens nor Davis — the only players made available Wednesday — wanted to talk much about the protest, but Davis acknowledged his teammates’ efforts.
“It brought awareness to the campus and what was going on that day,” Davis said. “I think it did that and that’s what it was for.”
And it could be for so much more if the people around them decide to take advantage of the moment the players created.