Shivansh Ahuja

Iowa’s Kaevon Merriweather kneels for the anthem during a football game between Iowa and Michigan State in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. The Hawkeyes dominated the Spartans, 49-7.

Power to the players: Hawkeyes speak up, kneel down

Dozens of Iowa football players have chosen to use their platform to promote racial justice.

November 12, 2020

The national anthem blared over the public address system at Kinnick Stadium on Oct. 31 before Iowa’s football game against Northwestern, as it always does prior to the opening kickoff. But the optics on the field were much different: For the first time, not every Hawkeye player was standing.

It was the first game of the season the team was on the field during the anthem as neither Iowa nor Purdue was on the turf for the tradition in Week 1 in West Lafayette because of game-day protocols. Hawkeye players would’ve knelt prior to that game if they had had the opportunity to do so.

In all, 29 Iowa players took a knee during the anthem before the first home game of the 2020 season. For those Hawkeye players, the gesture was a way to use their platform to advocate for racial equity in America.

“I know how African Americans are treated in the United States, so me taking a knee is to let everyone know what I stand for and what I believe in,” sophomore receiver Tyrone Tracy, who knelt for the anthem, said before the season. “I do think there are a lot of different things going on in the world that need some change. I think here in the organization we are going in the right direction. We’ve taken steps to provide change.”

Players being allowed to choose if they want to kneel or stand during the anthem this season marks a shift of opinion on that topic for the Hawkeye football program leaders.

A change of heart

In August of 2016, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick used his platform as a professional athlete and knelt during the playing of the anthem as a form of protest against racial injustice.

Kaepernick first sat on the bench during the anthem, then — after an open letter from former NFL player and Green Beret Nate Boyer, telling Kaepernick that it would be more respectful to the U.S. troops if he knelt — took a knee.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the media. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Despite Kaepernick kneeling to protest police brutality based on advice he received from Boyer, the action still drew criticism, including from President Donald Trump, who claimed it was unpatriotic not to stand for the anthem.

Kaepernick began protesting about a month after Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Louisiana.

Kaepernick, and other Black players, protest the disproportionate killings of Black people — Black people are twice as likely as white people to be killed by police — and wealth gaps that haven’t budged since 1968.

While some sports teams and institutions around the nation allowed players to kneel for the anthem, the University of Iowa football program was not one of them.

In 2017, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said he supported his student-athletes participating in social justice activities, but not on the football field.

“Certainly, we encourage them to grow, and be curious and ask questions. To me, that’s healthy. As long as you’re alive you should be doing that,” Ferentz said during one of his weekly press conferences at the time. “But this is the one time we put everything aside. We all dress alike, act alike, and we’re trying to do the same thing. Whatever they do on campus is great. As long as it’s not illegal or immoral, I’m all for it.”

This offseason brought about changes.

Following nationwide protests after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May, Ferentz changed his policy on the anthem for the first time in early June. Ferentz said whatever Iowa decided to do during the national anthem the players should all do the same thing.

“We want them to be uniform, whether it is their uniform, or the way they do things, the way they conduct themselves,” Ferentz said on June 3 during a video press conference. “To me, there’s a certain game-day protocol, if you will. In conjunction with that, I’ve always kind of felt like the sports arena is not a time to shine a light on an individual cause or an individual thing. No matter what the topic might be, that’s kind of been my approach.

“As we move forward right now, I think it’s important that we’re all together. But, whether it’s appropriate or not in a sports venue, that’s a discussion to be had. And certainly when we come back, we’ll talk about that as a team as well. I guess if I were to frame it out, I guess my goal, or my hopes, as a coach, is whatever we decide to do, and if it’s pertaining to that particular thing, I would just like to see our team to be together. Everybody’s taking a knee, or everybody’s at attention. Either way. The big thing is to be together, to me, on game day and present a uniform appearance as a football team.”

But then, news broke that hit closer to home for the Hawkeye community. Several coaches came under fire after former Iowa football players alleged racial disparities in their treatment of players. And floodgates opened with a tweet.

On June 5, former Hawkeye offensive lineman and current Chicago Bear James Daniels tweeted, “There are too many racial disparities in the Iowa football program. Black players have been treated unfairly for far too long.”

Daniels had previously commented on a tweet confirming that Ferentz wanted to take a uniform stance during the anthem saying “If the team collectively decides to kneel, this will bring about a cultural change for both Iowa football and the state of Iowa which I believe is long overdue!!!”

Daniels’ June 5 tweet about racial discrimination within the program gained traction as former and current Hawkeyes agreed with Daniels’ claim by replying, retweeting, and liking his tweet.

After Daniels’ June 5 tweet, an independent review into the football program’s treatment of players was conducted by a University of Iowa-hired law firm stationed in Kansas City, Missouri, Husch Blackwell. In its July 30 conclusion, the review found that the program’s rules “perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity.”

Almost three months later on Oct. 20, after multiple meetings, some of them with his team’s leadership group—made up of 21 players selected before the season following coaching staff and player input —and some with the entire team about the topic of the national anthem, Ferentz announced that players would have the opportunity to stand or kneel during the anthem.

Hawkeye players were exposed to differing viewpoints in those meetings. In one meeting, Ferentz said he shared a letter from a veteran who felt strongly that no one should kneel during the anthem. In another, a former Navy SEAL told the group that he thought if a player wanted to kneel, they should stay true to their beliefs.

Ultimately, the team came to the conclusion that the players should be able to choose to stand or kneel during the anthem.

“I’m convinced right now that we’ll see a variety of stances taken by our team,” Ferentz said Oct. 20 during a video conference with the media. “But I can also tell you, based on what I heard in three separate meetings, everybody’s very respectful of each other. Nobody is judging each other or taking roll or any of that kind of stuff. They’re being a good team. Acting like a team should.”

When standing or kneeling, Iowa players are given the choice to support their teammates by either holding hands or placing one hand on the shoulder of a kneeling teammate.

Prior to the Northwestern game, Ferentz stood during the anthem with his hand on the shoulder of running back Leshon Williams, who was kneeling.

Also taking a knee were Brenden Deasfernandes, Jestin Jacobs, Barrington Wade, Jay Higgins, Terry Roberts, Jack Johnson, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Calvin Lockett, Ivory Kelly-Martin, Alec Kritta, and Tracy, among others.

Dozens of Iowa players also knelt during the anthem again prior to Iowa’s Week 3 game against Michigan State.

Along with demonstrating during the playing of the anthem, Iowa players are wearing words on the lower pad on the back of their helmets, like “equality” and “together,” but the players are not required to have one of those words on their helmets.

Merriweather first to announce kneeling

Kaevon Merriweather, a sophomore defensive back, was the first player to publicly declare he would be taking a knee during the anthem, doing so well before the team announced its most recent policy.

Merriweather tweeted on June 8, “Do not watch our games on TV. Do not come up to us when you want photos. Do not ask us to give your kids autographs. Don’t come to us expecting us to do for you when you can’t support the Black athletes on this team and the decisions we make as a team.

“I would rather play in front of 1,000 fans who care about us as people outside of football and what we are standing for, than 70,000 fans who only care about us when we are in uniform and on the field entertaining them.”

Merriweather said that his decision to kneel was bigger than football and was a powerful way to show that he believes a lot has to change in the U.S. Along with his demonstration on the field, the Belleville, Michigan, native attended multiple social justice protests on the UI campus before the football season began.

“What’s going on in the country, there’s just a lot going on that’s wrong,” Merriweather said in an interview with The Daily Iowan. “We need to show a way in which we stand that we’re together as one. That we’re not OK with what’s going on and that we want change. As an athlete, just being able to demonstrate and show my voice, that’s a strong message to everyone in the world. Not just me personally, but to every athlete that stands for change.”

Other college athletes nationwide have contributed to significant change away from the playing field.

Multiple football players from Mississippi State University and other universities in that state, played pivotal roles in the state changing its flag — removing the emblem of the confederate flag — this summer. One player, Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill even threatened to quit playing if the state flag’s Confederate imagery remained unchanged.

“Either change the flag, or I won’t be representing this state anymore & I mean that .. I’m tired,” Hill tweeted.

Merriweather decided to include the message in his tweet to remind fans that the players are more than just members of the football team.

“Our fans need to understand that we’re more than athletes,” Merriweather said. “Outside of Saturdays, when the uniform comes off, we’re brothers, we’re sons, we’re cousins, we’re uncles. We’re just another kid on the street, we’re no longer Iowa football. When we’re in our regular clothes, we’re just another Black kid walking around. Outside of these walls, we need to be supported on and off the field.”

Although Merriweather received some vitriolic comments from people on social media, he said he expected that when he posted the original tweet. His teammates, however, supported his decision.

“Everybody [in the Iowa football program] supported me,” Merriweather said. “Everybody was proud that I was actually able to speak up and stand on something. All the comments from my teammates and coaches were very positive.”

Merriweather said he likes Iowa’s stance on giving players more say in matters within the team or on other issues outside of football.

“The coaches are allowing us, as players and as men, to have a little bit stronger voice and voice our opinions,” he said. “Whether it be with the anthem, within the team, or anything. That’s one of the biggest changes we’ve made in our program.”

First anthem game shows growth

After the Northwestern game, junior defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon said that the opportunity for players to choose what to do during the anthem is a sign of growth in the Iowa football program.

“That’s just our coaches and our coaching staff and everybody at Iowa believing in our team and believing that everybody’s life is equal,” Nixon said. “Having the right to go out there and express ourselves without any fallback or any punishment, that just shows the growth within our state, within our team, and within this family that we call a team.”

Ferentz stressed the players’ ability to choose what they wanted to do during the anthem while respecting everybody’s personal decisions.

“What we all decided was we’re going to respect each other’s opinions on the topic and, to me, that is doing things as a team,” Ferentz said. “The dialogue was outstanding. Everybody said what they felt but everybody also agreed that we’re going to have respect for each other’s opinions. That’s something our country is badly in need of right now. A little bit more listening and a little bit more civil conversation.”

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