Whether it is kneeling or going to the locker room during the national anthem, Webster athletes have used their platforms to raise awareness about current issues.
Webster basketball player Josh Johnson placed his knee against the cold court as the national anthem began to play as he had done before. Except for this time, it wasn’t on his home court. He was playing an away game and one of the locals did not take well to Johnson kneeling.
“One guy cursed me out during the national anthem, never knew the guy, he just cursed me out,” Johnson said. “I never felt like people tried to understand the ‘why’ behind the kneeling. I’m not just doing it for no reason. I didn’t expect it to be such a big thing when I saw my teammate do it. If anything happened, I expected people to ask. I didn’t want to receive that negative feedback.”
For athletes like Johnson, the game is a way to help raise awareness of issues that are important to him. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Before the second wave of the Black Lives Matter movement, the reason I was kind of doing it was to raise awareness, that’s great, that’s a great thing but that doesn’t make change,” Johnson said. “I always told myself, although I am kneeling, I still have to take action to make change.”
Johnson is just one player who has knelt during the national anthem. Celebrities like Colin Kaepernick, Lebron James and local players like Blake Ferrell have knelt to stand up for the social injustice Black people face in the country. What started with Kaepernick has rippled through sports, causing Laura Ingraham of Fox News to tell James to “shut up and dribble.” President Donald Trump has similar feelings of players kneeling during the national anthem, saying kneeling “maybe” should be a deportable offense on Fox and Friends.
For Johnson, the president saying these things hurts more than anything. People of color aren’t really in positions of power, Johnson explains, which is why it’s necessary for Black athletes to speak up and use their platform.
“Just hearing that from a president, we’re going through that on a daily basis, ‘Just shut up and do whatever your job is. Just do this, just do that.’ That hurts. You don’t hear that about other successful white people, or non-Black people. It just hurts, it kind of reiterates everything you’re trying to protest against,” Johnson said. “Every time I heard that I was just shocked. You’re supposed to be our leader, and you’re telling guys to shut up about prominent issues in our country. It’s frustrating because these are the issues that get kind of swept under the rug.”
Basketball forward Darieana Hunter agrees with Johnson. She said it’s important for young people to see athletes like James and Johnson use their platforms, especially after not seeing athletes speak out about politics when she was younger.
“I think it’s really powerful. A lot of people look up to LeBron and they kind of shadow what he does and he’s kind of taking a stand and standing up for what he believes,” Hunter said. “So, a lot of people are catching onto that, you know, especially with the voting. There’s a lot of people our age or younger [who] look up to all these athletes.”
For Hunter, kneeling is not the path she took with her platform. Instead, she has chosen to go to the locker room while the anthem plays. Hunter uses her influence as an athlete by speaking out. Recently, she spoke to Ferrell on his podcast “Blake’s Blackboard Stories.” There, she discussed wanting the athletics department to do more for Black athletes.
“It wasn’t an attack on my department because they’re great, but there’s always more that can be done,” Hunter said. “I think just even with that, it opened more doors in awareness. Because sometimes people don’t realize that they’re not doing enough or anything at all. And I got a lot of positive feedback from that, especially from my coach. He was super supportive of it, which I appreciate him thoroughly for that.”
Scott Kilgallon, director of athletics, also supports athletes’ right to express themselves on the court.
“Webster Athletics embraces Webster University’s long history of supporting the rights of ALL students to speak their opinions and stand up for what they think is right,” Kilgallon said. “Our Athletic Department supports our student-athletes kneeling for the Black Lives Matter and social injustice movement in a peaceful and safe manner.”
Johnson started out with negative feedback from his form of protest but has since had people reach out to him saying they understand why he knelt.
“Until everything happened with the Jacob Blake shooting and Breonna Taylor, before that movement – up until that point – I always got really negative feedback for it,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he didn’t lose many friends because of kneeling, but the backlash still hurt. He said he would much rather people ask him questions about why he was kneeling rather than just assume it was about disrespecting the flag. Hunter, who describes herself as a friend of Johnson, said she understands why he kneels rather than the methods she has chosen.
“He’s not hurting anyone. He’s not trying to be disrespectful, but he’s standing up for what he believes in,” Hunter said. “This is supposed to be a country of freedom, so he had every right to do that.”
Johnson and Hunter believe in one certainty: we are all human. Basketball players and athletes have the same rights as citizens do, Hunter says. Johnson believes everyone has a role to play when it comes to social injustice, especially when it comes to voting.