Southern Illinois University (SIU) released a new policy change this week to its code of conduct, banning student athletes, cheerleaders, and spirit members from participating in displays of political activism while in uniform or while performing or competing in official events and activities.
Students who go against the policy risk removal from their athletic program at the university—a place where students are usually encouraged to find passions and develop opinions.
Two days later, the university changed its mind after facing criticism about how the policy might violate First Amendment rights. SIU's student newspaper The Daily Egyptian reported that the athletics department does not plan to enforce the policy as it is written and will undergo a rewrite in the coming weeks.
But SIU's action raises an interesting question on how university athletic programs handle political activism.
The practice of kneeling during the national anthem protests the treatment of blacks by police in America.
Illinois State's Athletes
Illinois State University Athletics Director Larry Lyons said ISU has no such policy.
He said there have been no conversations with student athletes about political displays this year, but there were “general conversations” in previous years about appropriate behavior in the community and on campus.
“We’re in a little different time now with those kinds of things, and there are different expectations on our student athletes,” Lyons said. “We ask them to act appropriately and consider what the best thing for them to do is, but we don’t make a big issue out of it at all.”
On the national level, football players have been criticized for using their well-paid job to promote a political agenda. The difference between those athletes and college sports teams is simple: student athletes are not paid, and they often have a lot more to lose in the form of scholarships and career-breaking suspensions or removals.
ISU Head Football Coach Brock Spack said there are no repercussions for his players who partake in social activist displays during the national anthem “because we’re not on the field when they sing the national anthem.”
However, Spack said he does not believe the football field is an appropriate place for these displays.
“I think a football game, for me, college athletics, athletics is a place for fun, where people want to get away from all that, personally. That’s how I’d do it,” Spack said. “I’d rather focus on the game and having fun at the game and doing that kind of stuff. I think we play sports to get away from the heavy issues in life, at least that’s how I see it.”
And if Spack’s players or other student athletes and spirit members do decide to partake?
“We’ll address that issue as it happens,” Lyons said. “It has not happened in the past. I do not expect it will happen on this campus, but I guess we’ll have to address it at that time.”
Elsewhere in Bloomington-Normal
It hasn’t happened at ISU, but kneeling is not unknown to Bloomington-Normal.
Two years ago two senior Illinois Wesleyan University football players took a knee during the national anthem, and last October around 80 Normal Community High School students kneeled as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played at a homecoming assembly.
Redbird Football hasn’t had a discussion about taking a knee since the trend first started in 2016, according to Spack.
He said he’s open to talking with his players about it, but “only if they would bring it up. We would absolutely have to have one. But they haven’t really brought it up to me. I usually let them bring those kind of discussions up.”
Should a player take a knee at Saturday’s game, he said there will be no threat of taking away scholarships or revoking player status.
“I would have a conversation if a guy wanted to do that” Spack said. “The reasons why I think that would be a bad idea, but you know, it would be up to him to make that decision.
“That’d be my pitch to a player, honestly. They have a right to do what they think is right, but we kind of make a bond when we step in the family. We’re one football family, and that’s our focus. We try to have fun playing and not get too heavy into the world’s issues. So, that’s what we try to stay away from.”
As for repercussions like removal from the team?
“I don’t think that would be something we would do at this particular time,” Lyons said.
SIU's policy came after two years of political displays on the national sports stage.
It started with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who first kneeled during the national anthem in August 2016. A year later President Donald Trump called for kneeling players in the NFL to be fired, saying NFL owners should respond to the players with, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!"
Gov. Bruce Rauner jumped in on the conversation shortly after. He said the kneeling protests insult "our nation as a whole."
Now, the NFL has a blanket ban on kneeling for the anthem.
The three SIU cheerleaders kneeled during the anthem in September 2017 and were met with sexual harassment and death threats. The young women were honored by Carbondale’s NAACP chapter at its annual MLK event, but two of the three women are no longer enrolled at SIU for this fall.
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