In the wake of major sports leagues’ player-led protests, PNW’s own student-athletes are demanding that their voices on social justice issues be heard.
“We’re the image of PNW,” said senior men’s cross country captain Cristian Zendejas, expressing his frustration with the public perception that athletes should not make political or social statements. “I see so much criticism whenever athletes want to speak their mind and when that happens I just look at it in a different way and I think we’re people too and we have a platform.”
Kyle Fritz, a sophomore goaltender for the men’s hockey team, agrees.
“I think we’re responsible to get the word out because the situation needs to stop, bottom line,” he said. “Will we make a big impact compared to professional sports, NBA and all of that? Probably not. But within our community, we can strive to get the word out a lot better and become more solid as a unit.”
Controversy swirled around athletes’ social justice protests during the opening day of this NFL season, when several players kneeled or raised a fist during the playing of the national anthem. Before the Sept. 10 game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans pregame, some fans booed when the two teams linked arms at mid-field in what was called a show of unity over social justice issues.
Critics, most notably President Donald Trump, have condemned athletes who take a stand against racial injustice and police brutality in the U.S.
In a 2017 tweet, Trump referred to any NFL player who participated in on-field demonstrations as a “son of a bitch” who should be fired. In July Trump tweeted that players who kneel during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are disrespecting both the country and the flag.
PNW Veteran Services Coordinator and Marine Corps veteran Anthony Pilota doesn’t share the president’s view.
“I support their right to protest,” said Pilota, who served as a battle tank mechanic and spent time in combat in Afghanistan. “I believe in the First Amendment and it was an honor to fight for that right.”
Director of Public Safety Brian Miller, along with other members of the campus police department, will also stand in solidarity with student-athletes who choose to participate in peaceful protests.
“Many of my officers are veterans, myself included, and we defended those rights,” said Miller.
Despite the growing support from some campus officials, Zendejas and Fritz say they have yet to receive clarification from either the university or the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regarding the extent to which student-athletes will be allowed to show their support for movements like Black Lives Matter during gameplay.
Attempts to reach Kris Dunbar, commissioner of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference were unsuccessful.
Justin Hayden, vice president of the Black Student Union, is concerned.
“I think we should talk about these things that are difficult, things that are very obvious and prominent so we can find solutions,” he said. “I do believe that [racism] is considered a taboo thing on campus. I don’t think it’s touched on a lot. I think we mostly say, okay there are some issues, but we don’t necessarily say it’s racism.”
Chancellor Thomas Keon said the university wants to accommodate those who wish to express their freedom of speech but said he has not received any requests to do so.
“If we had student-athletes that felt the desire to express themselves and the concerns they might have for some of the social unrest that’s currently going on, we would quietly accept it and watch their protest, assuming that they weren’t doing anything that would be disruptive,” he said.
Keon said he applauds those athletes who use their platform to address forms of injustice.
“I think that protest is always appropriate,” he said. “There are limited ways in which individuals have an opportunity to make a difference and one way to make a difference is to be able to voice your point of view.”
For Zendejas, the decision is as much a matter of team membership as it is principle.
“I wouldn’t leave one guy behind,” he said. “If he wanted to kneel for a protest, I would too.”