Football and politics collided head-on over the weekend, when President Donald Trump’s criticism of NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice sparked a firestorm of reaction.
In college football, this debate largely has been avoided, in large part because unlike in the NFL, where teams are required to be on the sidelines, many teams, including the Gophers, remain in their locker room while “The Star-Spangled Banner’’ is played.
P.J. Fleck, in his first year as Minnesota’s coach after four at Western Michigan, always has had his teams remain in the locker room. It’s a matter of timing, he said Tuesday.
“The time constraints made me feel like it wasn’t necessary that we’d be able to do that. That’s the only reason why I’ve never been out there,’’ Fleck said. “Your team stands out there for 10 more minutes; I’d rather have them in there resting.’’
Instead, Fleck gives his players time to reflect in the locker room while the anthem is played.
“We give our players moments of silence in our locker room that they can do whatever they want with,’’ Fleck said, “whether they want to pray or whether they just want to have a moment of silence, whether they want to take a knee. … They have the right to do all of that.’’
Fleck’s practice of keeping the team in the locker room differs from Minnesota tradition, although changes to the U’s routine took place last season.
The Gophers began last year on the sideline for the anthem. In the season’s fourth game, at Penn State, both teams were told to delay entering the field until after the anthem. Former coach Tracy Claeys, saying he preferred the extra time in the locker room, kept that practice for the next six games. But he changed his mind after receiving strong feedback from fans who wanted the team on the sidelines and had the Gophers on the field for the anthem on Nov. 19 against Northwestern.
Around the Big Ten, coaches have differing views on how to how players can express their views on social issues.
“I’m still of the opinion that sports are sports and that hopefully no matter who we are, we can go to the stadium and just enjoy the sporting event and not have to bring all those other things into the arena,’’ Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “… The great thing about our country is we all have the right to formulate our views and express them in an appropriate way. One thing as a team is we’re together, and we’re going to be together in whatever we do. We’re all going to try to leave the politics out of our team experience.’’
Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald sees an opportunity for his players to grow by expressing themselves.
“This is the college experience, and every college campus has a different and unique heartbeat,’’ he said. “We’re a team that’s gonna talk about issues. We’re sometimes gonna have to agree to disagree. … And I feel like we have a very close-knit football family here. Our guys are unified in what they want to do and how they want to support each other.’’
Fleck sees a balance between the expression and the team concept.
“To get the politics involved in sport, in football. I think that’s where we’re going down a slippery slope,’’ said Fleck, whose team’s theme for Saturday’s game is “Salute to Service Members.’’ “Remember, football’s a release for a lot of people. It’s a chance to get away, a chance to take a deep breath. When all those issues start to creep in to the place where you’re going to take a deep breath, that’s when you start to feel all these emotions, and respectfully so.
“But for me, I want our players to have the freedom and ability to do it their way but still keep our team connected the way we need to.’’
Added Gophers quarterback Conor Rhoda: “We’re all Americans. We just want this place to be as good as it can be, and we’re all striving to make it better each day.’’