The decision by most of Penn’s men’s basketball players to sit during the national anthem before games has ignited debate, gathering both passionate support and vehement opposition.
The most noteworthy protest of the protest comes from James Maguire, one of Philadelphia’s largest and most influential financial benefactors, who sent a letter Thursday to Penn president Amy Gutmann, stating, “I am serving notice to you that the Maguire Foundation and I personally will not be renewing any scholarship gifts or pledges (present or future) nor undertaking any future commitments to Penn.”
Maguire, the parent of a Penn graduate, noted that he was a proud military veteran of the Korean War. Maguire also is the leading historical St. Joseph’s University lifetime donor, according to the school itself, and his name is on the portion of the campus acquired from Episcopal Academy. Maguire sent a copy of his letter to Gutmann, to St. Joseph’s president Mark Reed and athletic director Jill Bodensteiner, and also providing a copy to the Inquirer.
“By copy of this letter I am asking Saint Joseph’s to uninvite your team to their campus on December 8th for that game,” Maguire wrote in the letter to Gutmann. “To openly support disrespect to our country and to our flag is wrong and I do not want to be part of this disrespect.”
“What I can tell you, St Joseph’s absolutely will be hosting Penn on Dec. 8 as scheduled,” said Liz Kennedy Walsh, vice president for marketing and communications at St. Joseph’s, declining to otherwise comment. “That I can tell you for sure.”
A Penn captain, Jelani Williams, said after the Quakers home opener, in which all but three players sat during the anthem, joined by two assistant coaches, how “we’ve had a lot of internal conversations just about how guys have felt in their experience in this country as Black young men. 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.”
A Penn source noted that Quakers players did not sit during the anthem before a game at Bucknell on Nov. 14 because that school was honoring local veterans and first-responders as part of Veterans Day ceremonies. The Penn source, aware of the internal team discussions, said the anthem protest is not about the military.
One Penn alum, Alicia Bloom, a former track and cross-country athlete, wrote her own letter to her alma mater’s athletic department, posting it on Twitter, saying of the basketball players’ sitting, “It is clear that their decision is neither disrespectful nor despicable. It is thought, intentional and paired with action. They have taken our great University’s motto to heart and are embodying it — ‘laws without morals are useless’ and our nation’s laws are filled with systemic injustice, inequality and racism.”
Asked for comment and any details about reaction to the protests, a Penn athletic department spokesman directed a reporter to a spokesman for the university, who did not respond.
Penn is not the only Big 5 men’s basketball team offering some kind of anthem protest. Roughly half of Villanova’s men’s team has been leaving the court before the anthem, returning right afterward. Asked about it Sunday, Villanova coach Jay Wright said some players had done that last season, but few spectators attended games to see it.
“It’s been a real positive within our team and within our athletic department,” Wright said. “We had each guy explain why he’s either going to stand for the anthem — because half of them stand, half of them go in there — we had each guy individually explain why he’s going to stand for the anthem, and why they’re not to stand. Our goal was to respect that our Veterans fought for our country, and the beauty of our country is that everyone is willing to make their own decisions. That’s the beauty of our country.”
Wright added, “Each guy that’s in the locker room told the guys who are on the court, ‘I respect what you’re doing.’ Each guy on the court told the guys in the locker room, ‘I respect what you’re doing. I don’t agree, but I respect to have that [view] and I understand why.’ So that’s what we’re trying to teach our guys, take the time to understand each other’s opinion, respect it — you don’t have to like it — but understand it and respect it.”
Maguire, in a separate note, said he had “jumped out of planes, froze my a— off, saluted my American flag every day and loved my country with all its shortcomings.” Noting that after graduating from St. Joseph’s, there on the GI bill, he had founded the Philadelphia Insurance Company, and after selling it in 2018 for $4.7 billion, that he and his wife had contributed $1 billion “to specifically fund education, with over 2,500 scholarship students today at over 90 institutions, including at Penn.” His philanthropy has gone beyond education. The Maguire Foundation is a major donor, for instance, to Project Home, fighting homelessness in Philadelphia.
Maguire asked to find “a different way to disagree, respecting the people that put it all on the line for our country.”
Eric Zillmer, just retired as Drexel’s athletic director, said in his opinion, “the time for playing the national anthem has come and gone.”
Zillmer, whose own father is a West Point graduate and is buried on the grounds there, noted that the World University Games now play a standard hymn during medal ceremonies, staying away from anthems.
“The anthem used to unify people,” Zillmer said. “Now it has become divisive.”
Even that thought, it could be noted, might be considered divisive.