Ruth Sinn didn't know what her players were going to do last Saturday, when they lined up on the Schoenecker Arena court and faced the American flag. The St. Thomas women's basketball coach had offered just one instruction: Follow your conscience.
Before tipoff against Concordia (Moorhead), as they awaited the national anthem, Sinn and her team listened intently as the public address announcer read a statement. "The MIAC and the University of St. Thomas would like to recognize that the American experience has not been the same for everyone under the flag," it said. "As we continue the fight for equality and justice for all, we now invite you to respectfully express yourself for the playing of our national anthem."
Some Tommies stood. A few bowed their heads or held hands. And some joined Sinn, who placed her hand over her heart and took a knee.
"My dad fought in the Korean War," Sinn said. "We're very respectful of the flag and all the people who served the flag. But that isn't what this is about.
"We love our American ideals. We're doing this because we just think there's more work to be done. And we want everyone to feel represented and respected unconditionally, whether you stand or kneel."
When it comes to the national anthem and sports, Americans remain divided. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban reignited the issue last week when he said he had stopped playing the anthem at games. The mention of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who last played in the league three years ago, still angers people upset by his choice to kneel during the anthem.
But some schools, including St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota, are incorporating social justice messages into their pregame anthem presentations. The Tommies' statement is one of several new anthem introductions developed by the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference for use by its teams. The Gophers are playing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," often called the Black national anthem, before "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Jemal Griffin, a senior associate athletic director at St. Thomas, hopes the pre-anthem statement will spark conversation about inequality in America and de-stigmatize silent protest such as kneeling.
"Regardless of how you approach the national anthem, we want to be respectful of everyone's different experiences and feelings, and allow people to express themselves freely," said Griffin, who is the diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator for Tommies athletics. "We should be supportive of those differences."
At the U, senior associate AD Peyton Owens views "Lift Every Voice and Sing" as an educational opportunity. When it was used at selected games in 2016 during Black History Month, Owens said some people in the Gophers' predominantly white audience wanted to know what the song was and why it was being played along with the national anthem.
The Gophers used mailings and game programs to explain the hymn's significance to Black Americans and its place in their history. This year, as the school expands its diversity and inclusion efforts, it is being played at every home basketball game and at all home sports events in February. A Wisconsin women's hockey fan recently sent the U a note of thanks for introducing them to the song.
"I'm tremendously happy and hopeful, because we're not just doing something to check a box," said Owens, the Gophers' chief diversity and inclusion officer. "We're generating awareness. And we're creating meaningful opportunities for us to live out a lot of what the national anthem, and the Black national anthem, would hope for all of us."
Years in the works
St. Thomas resumed sports competition two weeks ago, ending a 10-month layoff forced by the pandemic. The new introduction to the national anthem is being read at basketball, hockey and swimming events.
Chris Dixon, director of athletic diversity and inclusion at Augsburg University, said MIAC schools have discussed anthem protests since Kaepernick began kneeling in 2016. George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police last May led to deeper conversations on race and social justice. Late last year, a group of league officials, student-athletes and administrators created multiple anthem-introduction scripts for member schools to consider.
"We didn't want to make it homogeneous, where everybody had to do the same thing," Dixon said. "We recognize the diversity within our conference. We wanted to give folks options, based on what they felt comfortable with in their campus community and culture."
Those options include the traditional national anthem ritual — asking fans to stand and remove their caps — and the introduction now being read at St. Thomas. Dixon said there are other choices that use different wording. Some schools, including Augsburg and Hamline, have not made a decision.
Dixon has not heard of any objections, but he said there is "a natural concern" about making everyone feel respected, from students to alumni to donors. That could be tricky to pull off.
Silent protest during the national anthem remains an emotionally charged issue, half a century after American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City to protest racial injustice. Cuban reinstated the anthem at Mavericks games on Wednesday, after the NBA said all teams must play it, but not quickly enough to avoid another burst of controversy.
The NHL's Dallas Stars and baseball's Texas Rangers released statements saying they would continue playing the anthem. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced the "Star Spangled Banner Protection Act," which would require the anthem to be played at any event that receives public funding, and called Cuban's act "a slap in the face to every American."
Bluefield College, an NAIA school in Virginia, forfeited a men's basketball game Thursday when its president suspended players for kneeling during the anthem.
With no spectators allowed at events, St. Thomas hasn't received any outside feedback on its new approach to the anthem. Griffin said school officials will continue evaluating the text, and the anthem presentation could change over time.
Asked about potential criticism, Sinn said "you can't control what other people think." She views the choice as another avenue for the Tommies to live out the school's mission. To Griffin, that's what matters most.
"You have to look at it from an internal perspective, based on what your values are and what you feel is important," Griffin said. "We feel good about the way we've handled this, knowing we may never satisfy everyone."
The Gophers permit athletes to kneel during the anthem. Athletic department policy states "our student-athletes — like all citizens and all students on campus — have a right to express themselves symbolically and peacefully."
At basketball games, they read a statement about social justice and equality, invite people to stand, then play "Lift Every Voice and Sing" followed by the national anthem. The National Association of Basketball Coaches has encouraged colleges and high schools to play both songs, as a way to promote unity and educate all Americans about Black history and experience. NABC spokesman Eric Wieberg said the response from coaches has been "almost universally positive."
"When you have a platform like sports provides in America, you have an ability to make an impact on a variety of topics," Wieberg said. "The nationwide reckoning that was happening really hit home with a lot of us. A lot of our athletes are impacted by this, and we think we have a responsibility to use that platform for good."
Sinn does not view the Tommies' approach to the national anthem as "a political thing" but as an outgrowth of her team's difficult, ongoing conversations on race and social justice. As a teacher, she sees the anthem issue as a means for players to educate themselves, think critically and develop beliefs.
Her primary message: They should do whatever feels true to themselves, knowing they will be supported.
"Whether you kneel or stand, you won't be judged in any way," Sinn said. "That's the society we're hoping to move towards, one where everybody feels valued, and has dignity and worth."
With local schools opening the door to change, Dixon, Griffin and Owens expect the presentation of the national anthem to keep evolving. Dixon said people are more willing to have conversations, and polls show public opinion is shifting. In a Washington Post poll last August, 56% of respondents thought it was appropriate to kneel during the anthem to protest racial inequality; only 42% said it was appropriate in a Post poll two years earlier.
"I hesitate to say we've turned a corner," Owens said. "It's still very early. But I hope for all of us this is not just a moment, but a movement."