Ever since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, culture war politics have entered the sports world.
Since then, national anthem protests have spread to other sports, including college athletics.
Former Webster University basketball player Jonathan Odjo took a knee during a game against Washington University, last season. Odjo said his reasons for taking a knee was not to disrespect veterans or the flag, but to raise awareness of racial injustice.
“I hope that the protests raise awareness and cause us to act, as opposed to just protesting,” Odjo said. “People may not understand the viewpoint from the other side where we are saying that police brutality is at a higher rate to people of color.”
Odjo’s former teammate, Josh Johnson, also joined Odjo in taking a knee before the national anthem last year.
Odjo said he made sure that his demonstration would not be a distraction to his teammates and coaches before doing it.
“My teammates were very much in support of me,” Odjo said. “Some of them said that is not something I would do, but were in support of me doing it. A lot of my teammates would put their hand on my shoulder.”
Webster University director of athletics Scott Kilgallon said his department respects diverse views on the subject as long as it does not cause a disruption to the game. He also said he personally is for standing because his father was a veteran.
Kilgallon said he wants to protect his student-athletes regardless of what views they have.
“You have to try to understand it from both ends,” Kilgallon said. “I have my own personal feelings on it, but professionally it is to educate and have a conversation.”
Webster University SPICE coach Paul Truong immigrated from Vietnam to the United States. He said he supports the freedom of speech to protest that does not exist in Vietnam, but thinks athletes should take pride in their country.
“There is a lack of pride in this country, and I am saying this as an immigrant and political refugee coming into the United States,” Truong said. “I’m proud to retain my heritage and my culture, but since I took citizenship in the United States, I have to respect this country.”
Odjo said Kaepernick has sacrificed his career for his beliefs and that people should focus on his donations to charity instead of him kneeling for the national anthem.
“Maybe if we stop pointing fingers, we could make a change,” Odjo said. “Colin Kaepernick is definitely the Martin Luther King or Muhammad Ali of his generation.”
Truong said he understands what Kaepernick and other athletes who are kneeling are saying, but he disagrees with their approach. He said it will alienate half the country and stop a serious debate.
“The objective I want is to have a solution,” Truong said. “To me, the stunt by both sides of players kneeling down and the Vice President leaving the stadium is not giving anybody a solution.”
Truong is referring to an Oct. 8 matchup between the 49ers and Colts; Vice President Mike Pence attended but walked out after several players knelt during the national anthem.
For Odjo, the biggest problem was the rhetoric used by President Donald Trump criticizing NFL players. Odjo said Trump was nicer to the “alt-right” and white supremacist protesters at Charlottesville than NFL players kneeling.
“I think his words were not very kind and they were not very understanding,” Odjo said. “Especially as a commander in chief, they can be misrepresented and not show his views in a very good light.”
Kilgallon said sports can have a unifying role, even when the country is divided.
“You go to a game and you see kids from diverse backgrounds . . . and they are working together as a team,” Kilgallon said. “They are not looking at this person as a white person or a black person, they are coming together as a group. That is one of the beautiful things about sports.”