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Why I’m proud of Ole Miss basketball for taking a knee

Breein Tyree and his teammates are more than unfeeling athletes; they are Ole Miss students and Americans who care about their school and country.

On Saturday, before the Ole Miss basketball team hosted Georgia in the Pavilion, a group of Rebel players knelt during the national anthem. When asked to comment on the decision to kneel, Ole Miss star Breein Tyree explained that the act came in response to a group of protesters in Oxford that day demonstrating against, among other things, student-led demonstrations to remove confederate imagery from the university campus.

“We’re just tired of these hate groups coming to our school and portraying our campus — like our actual university has these hate groups in our school,” said Tyree. The junior guard remarked that they knelt in solidarity with each other, adding “we saw one of our teammates doing it, and we just didn’t want him to be alone.”

This story is an old one. Participating in a demonstration during the national anthem is not a new idea, nor are the criticisms against such demonstrations particularly novel. The Ole Miss basketball players certainly knew of the weight of this controversy—Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem two-and-a-half years ago is still a part of the American political zeitgeist—and understood the type of criticism they would receive. If you’ve been on social media in the last few days, you’ve seen the highly-predictable responses already.

Thankfully—and we say this with a twinge of irony given our editorial stance around here—these young men are students of the University of Mississippi. Academic freedom laws and their Constitutionally-guaranteed right to free expression protect them from any sort of institutional retribution. Much to the chagrin of many, they will still suit up in the red and blue this Wednesday night against Tennessee.

But pointing out that they have the civil liberty to demonstrate is not my point. Rather, I would like to explain how I, an alumnus of the University of Mississippi and a fan of its basketball team, am proud of Breein Tyree, Terrence Davis, K.J. Buffen, Bruce Stevens, Devontae Shuler, and Luis Rodriguez for making a difficult decision to engage in a controversial protest in order to bring attention to issues concerning them and many of their fellow Ole Miss students.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Missouri
Breein Tyree
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I stand at attention for the national anthem when it’s played. I cannot recall a moment where I felt compelled to do otherwise. I do admit that I often feel that it is an unusual bit of pageantry that we Americans engage in (it is not a common practice elsewhere), but it is our thing we do, unusual pageantry or not.

Even then, I would never tell another fellow American that they must do as I do during the national anthem. Participation in a pre-basketball rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” is absolutely voluntary, as it should be. No one should feel compelled into patriotism, and if they were then they would not be expressing patriotism in any real sense.

Yes, standing at attention during the playing of the national anthem is a patriotic act, but it’s a rather hollow and insignificant gesture. In that sense, standing for “The Star Spangled Banner” is a patriotic act as much as being able to recite a Hail Mary is a religious one. It certainly is a piece of the puzzle but not a particularly important one all on its own. Real love-of-your-country patriotism is more complex than that. It is not just about enjoying the fun stuff like the 4th of July and hotdog eating contests. Real patriotism is difficult. Real patriotism is work.

Real patriotism includes things like voting, holding elected officials accountable, public service, and having serious arguments over what is best for America and Americans. It includes demanding your country protect its countrymen, and requires making difficult decisions in defense of American ideals. Standing still for 90 seconds in between a stop at the bathroom and your second pre-game Coke is easy; kneeling during the national anthem, in an act of nonviolent protest, is a much more calculated, difficult, politically incorrect decision to make.

It is also one that is nuanced enough to earn a more nuanced counter-point than “the troops!” These protests aren’t about the flag or anthem themselves as symbols, nor are they about the American armed forces as some sort of monolith. The easiest evidence for this is that many of the very people for which the “respect the troops” concern is offered do not particularly care for that concern.

I do not mean to posit that a fistful of tweets commenting onto this one specific incident are proof of anything, other than that they show that active-duty servicemen and women, and veterans, are not a monolith. Treating them as such in order to wield them as a political cudgel is intellectually lazy, and a way to end an argument without even having one. Worse than that, it enables those who wield it to completely ignore the argument being made by the demonstration in the first place. It excuses people from doing the one thing they should have the decency to do for these basketball players: listen to them.

Tyree and his teammates had to know this would happen. They knew they would receive a lot of negative attention and unfair, bad faith criticism. They knew it would elicit emotional responses and that their American-ness would be questioned.

Knowing this, they engaged their protest, itself a controversial public display, because they understand the purpose and power of protest itself. As Tyree remarked after Saturdays game, their decision to kneel was about utilizing their platform—the unique platform they are privileged to enjoy—to spread a message about Ole Miss that they, as students of Ole Miss, wanted to spread.

Ole Miss football defensive tackle Josiah Coatney got the point:

A common rebuke to many types protests are for the protestors to hold them some other place and time. That argument completely betrays the point of protests. Protests are supposed to prove a point and provoke thought, and they are designed to use public platforms and disruption to do so. This discussion we are all having right now is exactly the point of a peaceful demonstration like what we saw on Saturday. If they had the protest in some other manner, in some other place, and at some other time, we would not be having this conversation right now. Asking nonviolent protestors to change the terms of their protest is a step removed from asking them not to engage in protest at all.

Change is rarely made by people who refuse to disrupt a status quo. Tyree and his teammates understand this. They knew they would be criticized and insulted, and they knew that what they were doing would be disruptive, but they did so out of a sincere belief that they could start a conversation about what they believe is best for the Ole Miss community.

That takes guts.

As an Ole Miss alumnus, seeing that type of fortitude from a group of current Ole Miss students makes me proud. Further, as an American, I am immensely proud that these players—and the people they were protesting—felt free to express themselves on Saturday. That freedom is something we value in America, and I do not want to live in a country without that value.

Suggesting that these sorts of demonstrations should best be done elsewhere is dehumanizing. Telling athletes to “stick to sports” treats them as nothing more than entertainers here for your and my personal enjoyment. Tyree and his teammates who keeled are more than empty, unfeeling athletes; they are Ole Miss students and Americans who care about their school and their country. Their demonstration showed all of us as much, and they deserve to be taken seriously. They deserve to be listened to.