What Are An Athletic Department’s Responsibilities Around Recent Student-Athlete Protests?

October 3rd, 2016 | by Francis Giknis
What Are An Athletic Department’s Responsibilities Around Recent Student-Athlete Protests?


49ers’ backup QB Colin Kaepernick’s recent actions during the national anthem have sparked an ongoing debate regarding respect of country, the nature of protests, and racial relations in the U.S. Many have spurned Kaepernick for what he is doing, while others have found inspiration not only in his message, but the method by which he is drawing attention to it.

Student-athletes have certainly taken notice of Kaepernick, and some have aligned themselves with the growing protests in their own ways. This past Saturday, a handful of the East Carolina band knelt during the national anthem that started the game. There were other noteworthy protests this week at a Kansas women’s volleyball game and, on a larger scale, at the University of Michigan’s football game.

The frequency and magnitude of college protests by student-athletes are becoming such that athletic departments and administrators will need to decide soon how to approach them. This is a tenuous issue as seen by the national outcry against Kaepernick, and the additional factor of student-athletes being part of a campus community makes things more complicated. As opposed to with Kaerpernick, whose protests are that of an individual employee under contract, student-athletes are in much more vulnerable positions and theoretically represent substantially larger groups than an individual NFL franchise.

Through this framework, athletic departments might seek to quash actions that could disenfranchise alumni and fellow students. In fact, this very concern became concrete when ECU fans booed their own aforementioned band, an ugly look for not just the fans but the university as well.

However, athletic departments must be wary of knee-jerk, censorious regulations as protests undoubtedly continue to grow and spread. Although representing great swaths of alumni, faculty, and fellow students, student-athletes are still members of communities of learning, with critical thinking and argument essential elements of the process. Conversations around difficult topics, rethinking past norms, and peaceful resistance to tradition deemed inappropriate are all part and parcel of the college experience and essential to growing as a conscientious citizen. ECU chancellor Cecil Stanton said as much in his statement following the disapproval levied at his school’s marching band:

“As an institution of higher learning, East Carolina respects the rights of our students, staff and faculty to express their personal views. That is part of the free exchange of ideas on a university campus…Civil discourse is an East Carolina value and part of our ECU creed. We are proud that recent campus conversations on difficult issues have been constructive, meaningful exchanges that helped grow new understanding among our campus community.”

While Chancellor Stanton’s statement captures the spirit of discourse that should pervade college campuses, the totalitarian nature of many locker rooms might be in conflict with his ideology. Coaches are notorious for wanting to control every last iota of what happens around their teams, and the distraction created by protesting players could truly irk a program’s leadership. This is why a prior dialogue with all members of an athletic department is essential. When a player protests, a school’s athletic department must have a united plan for how the resulting consequences will be addressed that is also in keeping with the spirit of an institution of higher learning. Otherwise, poor reactions could alienate not only players from their schools, but like-minded boosters, alumni, and students as well.

About Contributor Francis Giknis
Francis Giknis joins College AD as a contributor after seven years of teaching and coaching throughout the east coast. Prior to writing for College AD, Francis earned an English degree from the College of William and Mary and his masters at Columbia University. Raised in a cable television-free household, he remembers binge-watching ESPN while on vacations away from home, much to the chagrin of his parents.

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