Penn State football players may kneel during national anthem, Big Ten says. But what if they’re not on the field for it?

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College athletes in the Big Ten Conference may kneel for the national anthem if sports resume this fall, commissioner Kevin Warren told USA TODAY Sports this week.

But will Warren’s permission make a difference if football programs, including Penn State, continue long-held traditions that keep some of the university’s highest-profile players off the field during the anthem? If an athlete shows solidarity with Black Lives Matter in a private space away from cameras, will it have an impact?

“Not so much,” said Ramogi Huma, the executive director of the National College Players Association. “The reason why kneeling during the anthem would have potential power is players using a platform they have in the most visible way.

“If it happens away from that stage, then it’s not going to be effective,” he added. “It would be as effective as them kneeling in their dorm room.”

The commissioner’s statements came as protests against racial injustice continued around the world, in big cities and small towns, after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed when a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. The outrage over Floyd’s death has reverberated across college campuses and already has led to change at some of the nation’s top college football programs, where about half of the players are black and most coaches are white.

“Players have had enough,” Huma said. “Many of them saw themselves under that knee.”

If sports resume in the fall despite the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unclear whether these athletes will be able to take a knee on a national stage.

Warren said as commissioner he would “personally empower student-athletes to express their right to free speech and peaceful protest” in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. But he did not address the discrepancy between his approval of anthem demonstrations and the pregame-show format at many big-time college football games, during which the marching band plays the anthem on the field and then players run out just moments before kickoff.

The Penn State football team goes back into the tunnel before the start of its game against Michigan at Beaver Stadium on Oct. 19, 2019.

The national anthem is not typically broadcast live before college football games due to optics, said Matt Fine, an associate professor at Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication.

Historically, “airing the national anthem is awkward for TV because you’re not supposed to talk during it,” said Fine, who teaches sports production.

It wasn’t always a tradition at pro sporting events, and NFL players weren’t regularly on the field for it until 2009. After 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee seven years later to protest police brutality, the anthem became a platform for players to call for change.

Spokespersons for Penn State football did not respond to requests for comment, which included questions about whether changes to its traditional pregame show were being considered. Games at Beaver Stadium can be attended by as many as 107,000 spectators and are often televised nationally.

A spokesperson for Rutgers — which draws far fewer spectators — also did not respond to questions about the commissioner’s statements.

Huma, a former UCLA football player, said he would encourage athletes to talk with coaches and administrators about whether changes can be made to allow them to demonstrate. However, colleges still have some financial incentive for them not to do so, he said.

While large corporations are now showing support for Black Lives Matter, university donors are a different story, he said.

“There are many boosters who may disagree with players kneeling during the anthem,” Huma said. But ultimately, universities “can have football games without boosters, but they can’t have games without players.”

College athletes have already taken a stand, sometimes without coaches’ permission. They’re protesting, calling out their coaches and universities when they see examples of systemic racism, and threatening to boycott if changes aren’t made.

“Players have always had this power, but they’ve never wielded it in this way,” Huma said. And “it’s not just the black players. That’s what’s different this time.”

Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard made national news Monday when he criticized coach Mike Gundy for being photographed in a shirt bearing the logo of One America News Network, which has called Black Lives Matter “a farce.” Hubbard tweeted: “This is completely insensitive to everything going on in society, and it’s unacceptable. I will not be doing anything with Oklahoma State until things CHANGE.”

Gundy has since met with his team and apologized, saying he was “disgusted” to learn of OAN’s stance on Black Lives Matter. Hubbard called the apology “a step in the right direction.”

Elsewhere, new Florida State football coach Mike Norvell’s assertion that he had reached out to players individually to discuss Floyd’s death were refuted by defensive lineman Marvin Wilson, who started a movement on the Tallahassee campus. A longtime University of Iowa strength coach resigned after more than 60 former players accused him of racism. Texas football players said they won’t help recruit players or attend donor events if the university doesn’t take steps toward greater inclusion, including by replacing the school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” which has racist roots.

In State College, Penn State football players joined in protests against racial injustice and have spoken publicly in support of the movement.

Coach James Franklin, one of 13 black head coaches among the 130 FBS programs, has amplified his players’ voices on social media and was recently announced as one of nine Penn State representatives on the Big Ten’s new Anti-Hate, Anti-Racism Coalition. After Floyd’s death, he put out a statement on Twitter.

“These senseless deaths are a symptom of a larger problem and in moments like this, silence is deafening indifference,” Franklin wrote. “The direction of our country genuinely concerns me for the health and well-being of the young men I have devoted my life and career to leading. … The idea they can have their lives stolen from them before they get a chance to leave their mark on the world is unconscionable.”

Neither he nor his players have said whether they would want to demonstrate on game days, if sports return this fall.


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