The Gophers football team no longer stands on the field during the pregame national anthem, a practice that started after the game at Penn State on Oct. 1.
Then, as it is now, the debate about what role athletes play in voicing concern about social injustices was making its way coast to coast.
After San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick began sitting and then kneeling during the anthem in August in protest of police violence, several college players around the country followed his lead, including some Nebraska Cornhuskers during the national anthem on Sept. 24.
The change in plans for Gophers football, however, is not about making a statement, coach Tracy Claeys said recently. The belief within the program had been it was a Big Ten rule for teams to be on the field for the anthem. Upon learning that was not the case, Claeys said he made the change because he wanted to improve the team’s pregame strategy.
“Prior to the [Penn State] game, they kept both teams in the locker room until right before kickoff,” Claeys said. “The game started almost immediately when we took the field. I liked that routine and liked having the team together as long as possible before the start of the game.”
The coach added that he has spoken to his players about social issues.
“We have had three really good conversations with our team about social issues outside of the football complex,” Claeys said recently. “We encourage open dialogue.”
The Gophers play Nebraska this weekend, and the Cornhuskers found themselves at the center of the debate. Football players Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry and DaiShon Neal took a knee during the song, and later held a news conference to say their protest was about joining NFL, NBA, WNBA players and other athletes in their stances against social injustice.
The players received threats and insults. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said, “I think the way they chose to protest was disgraceful and disrespectful.”
Saturday will not bring another opportunity, in front of 90,000-plus fans and a Big Ten Network television audience, for demonstration at Memorial Stadium. The Cornhuskers will be in the locker room for the national anthem, their usual plan for home games. The Gophers won’t be on the sideline then, either. Their coach will be getting them prepared behind the scenes to take on their Big Ten West division rivals.