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Penn men’s basketball players who sit for the national anthem explain their protest

Quakers players said the reaction to their statement explains why they feel it needs to continue.

The majority of Penn's team sits for the national anthem before the game against Lafayette.
The majority of Penn's team sits for the national anthem before the game against Lafayette.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Before Penn’s home opener Tuesday against Lafayette, all but three Penn Quakers men’s basketball players sat on the team’s bench during the national anthem, some linking arms. Two assistant coaches sat. Head coach Steve Donahue stood just past the end of the bench.

The discussion isn’t over, can’t be over. That’s the overarching message the Quakers want to project, a couple of team captains said, when you see most of the men’s basketball team sitting during the anthem, home at the Palestra or on the road.

“We want people to notice,” said Penn senior Lucas Monroe, a captain. “We want them to ask us about it. … People see us sitting for the flag. Obviously, some people don’t like it. We saw that in Tallahassee [when Penn opened at Florida State.] We saw it at George Mason. And even here, a lot of people aren’t going to like it. But it gets them thinking, why are they sitting? What issues are they sitting for? Why are they doing this?”

He means really thinking about it, investigating it.

“Why might these kids be sitting when really no one else is?” Monroe said.

» READ MORE: The Palestra returns to life

The backs of all the Penn warmup tops either say EQUALITY or SAY HER NAME. This, Monroe made clear, isn’t a single-issue protest.

“Most guys, their reasons for sitting, there are issues in America that have always been here, that have to do with the way you look, the way you identify,” Monroe said, talking about how a lot of populations in Philadelphia are disadvantaged.

“We’ve had a lot of internal conversations just about how guys have felt in their experience in this country as Black young men,” said Jelani Williams, also a captain. “There are still a lot of people in the prison-industrial complex. The wage gap is still growing every day. There’s a bunch of stuff.

“We see racial gaps in pretty much every aspect of life, whether that be the health care system, education, housing. So for us, it’s about bringing light to the fact that while the anthem says that America stands for freedom and justice and equality for all — the land of the free — we want to highlight the fact that it doesn’t always live up to that. We just want to keep that conversation going, and have everybody understand that’s the way we feel.”

“What I’d tell you is we’ve talked hours and hours, maybe a hundred hours during the pandemic, about this issue,” Donahue said. “They articulate it and they give it great reasons. My thought is, they deserve that freedom of expression. They do it respectfully. I think it’s a personal decision. I’m supportive of them.”

Trouble on road

“A lot of some of the reactions we’ve gotten from sitting kind of illuminate the issue,” Williams said. “We went to Florida State ... we got booed and yelled at and one of our guys’ little brother and sister got into a verbal altercation with one of the fans there that left them in tears. Myself, I got called a slur by a Florida State fan.”

It was during a dead ball while he was on the court, Williams said.

“He told me to stand for the anthem and he called me the N word,” Williams said. “I definitely expected a hostile reaction, some boos and things like that. It was a little surreal for someone to be so close to the court, and hear it so directly. The way he looked at me, and things like that. That definitely struck me a little bit differently. At the end of the day, that was something I felt like, yeah, we’re doing this for the right reason.”

They know, Williams and Monroe said, such reactions could happen in any gym in this country.

“So for us, it’s about getting that reaction out of people so we can continue to have these conversations and try to get action behind it,’’ Williams said. “As of right now, we’re standing as a team for the most part.”

So to speak …

“Sitting as a team,” Williams said. “Standing for what we believe in and what we want to be talked about and issues that we want illuminated, that we feel like have been pushed to the background post-George Floyd, the verdict.”

One conversation they want people to be having is how race impacts people’s viewpoints on a whole range of issues.

One of the good things about their schedule, Monroe said, is that they’ll be spreading this conversation around the country, including upcoming trips to South Carolina and Arkansas.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about it,” Monroe said. “We fully know what to expect. There’s going to be a lot of people that don’t like it, depending on where we are. There are going to be some people that applaud it and they’re going to appreciate it. We kind of just stay together. When we hear negative opinions about it, whether it’s in person at Florida State or afterwards on Twitter, on social media, we fully are prepared for that.”

Monroe brought up how they’ve discussed as a team that none of this should distract them from the game — “that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “The main goal right now is to win the game. Obviously, after that, we want to keep the conversation going.”

Did Donahue himself hear anything at Florida State that was derogatory to the point of being offensive?

“Yeah,’’ Donahue said. “It was bad.”

Writing about it

This week, Quakers assistant coach Nat Graham wrote an online essay titled, “Why We Sit.” Graham noted that it was understood that some supporters of the program might end their support, including financially. “There could be future career consequences for both players and staff,” Graham wrote.

Graham noted that the demonstration was “borrowing on that which was started by Colin Kaepernick, that like Kaepernick, Penn players’ reasons for sitting were not specific to policing in this country, nor was it meant as a sign of disrespect toward the military. For us, collectively, it was more a statement regarding ongoing institutional racism in this country and a hope to foster more truthful conversation moving forward. We may not have a huge platform, but our players wanted to use the one we do have to say we should better as a country.”

» READ MORE: Lucas Monroe is a basketball nerd

Graham wrote how Black players know the history behind the anthem itself, and have nuanced conversations about it, that the players sitting are supportive of the ones standing.

“In the end, I chose to sit,” Graham wrote, “because I wanted to not only show my solidarity and support for these young men who I love like family, but I didn’t want to be the white guy who expressed support but was afraid to do anything that might cause personal discomfort.”

Graham said he was told an email had been sent to Penn’s athletic department calling the players and team “despicable and disrespectful.” He asked that people look at history more closely.

“Part of me as a parent, I just want to protect the kids,” Donahue said. “I would say, ‘Are you sure you want to go through this? If you do, I’m with you. I love all you guys.’ Our administration has been unbelievable, reaching out to each guy. ‘If there’s something you feel uncomfortable [about], tell us, we can help you.’ I think as a university, we’re really supportive of these kids.”

Donahue also said, “If I didn’t think it was authentic, I would tell you and I would be uncomfortable. I’m not uncomfortable.”