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Where does ONU stand on kneeling?

ONU athletic director Tom Simmons said that the school will be open to student-athletes performing civil protest during the National Anthem, as long as it is "respectful and not a distraction." (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

Sunday was a day of righteous, widespread protest in the NFL.

Many teams linked arms during the National Anthem, while some individual players kneeled, sat or stretched as it was played before kickoff. A handful of teams stayed in the locker room.

The civil protest stemmed from former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick’s demonstration over a year ago, when he kneeled during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and the oppression of African-Americans in America.

Numerous players have followed Kaepernick’s lead since then, and last Saturday, U.S. President Donald Trump called those NFL players “sons of b------” for doing so. This led to players, coaches and owners protesting on Sunday to show unity in response to the President’s comments.

Last weekend’s wave of protest in the NFL gained undeniable traction in the nation's mainstream news cycle, and has prompted institutions like Ohio Northern to develop a stance on the issue.

ONU athletic director Tom Simmons spoke with university administration before discussing the school’s position with coaches earlier this week.

“It’s our civil right. People have a right to a peaceful protest and you don’t infringe on [it]. It’s part of America,” Simmons said in regard to the school’s view. “So, if someone has something they want to say and they do it appropriately, then they say it.”

Simmons told coaches that athletes would be permitted to conduct civil protest as long as it is “respectful and not a distraction.”

This newspaper contacted athletic directors from every OAC school on their institution’s stance on the kneeling issue, although only three responded (besides ONU) and none revealed their position. Otterbein and Heidelberg both declined to comment on the issue, while Marietta said Tuesday that they would issue a response but have yet to do so.

At Ohio Northern, 21 of the school’s 23 varsity sports are on their respective field of competition during the National Anthem. Only football and golf are not, as the football team is in the locker room praying at that time and the anthem is typically not played before golf matches.

Simmons said that ONU student-athletes are encouraged to speak their minds and exercise their civil rights, as doing so is vital to the college experience.

“You’re here to learn about becoming an adult and making good decisions, wise decisions, and well-thought out decisions as part of the growing up process. And you certainly don’t want to impede that process,” Simmons said. “We want to help our students. We want our students to learn, and we learn from our students.”

Furthermore, Simmons said that he has asked the university’s coaches to keep their personal political views out of any decision that they might make based on an athlete’s decision to kneel or not.

“We can have our personal opinions -- like, I have my personal opinion -- but I work for the university,” Simmons said. “So, if it comes down to my personal opinion being different from the university, I have to speak as an agent of the university when I’m on the clock. When we’re dealing with athletics, we’re on the clock. And we follow the university’s policies in every way, shape and form. And if the university says that we accept that, then we accept that and we move on.”

However, some ONU student-athletes had mixed opinions on whether or not the school and campus community would support their actions if they decided to kneel during the National Anthem.

Devonne Johnson, a senior football player, said that he “would not feel safe” kneeling during the National Anthem if he chose to do so.

“Ohio Northern released a statement to my coaches and teammates stating that, as an individual, we may express our own views on the matter only if [we are] doing it in a peaceful manner, such as kneeling or sitting down. While ONU may show support of our views, the parents, alumni, fans, and supporters may not,” Johnson said. “I believe that the views throughout the team and coaches would vary, but I do not think our community would support them if they were different from theirs.”

And while baseball player Kyle Schlade said that he would feel safe if he were to perform civil protest at ONU, he added that, “with the school's foundation being historically on the conservative side, I would not be surprised if there was some form of a consequence or rebuke that would take place -- whether it would come from other players, students, or quite possibly the coaches or administrative staff.”

This newspaper reached out to all 100 senior athletes listed on team rosters on Ohio Northern’s athletics website to ask how they feel the campus community would react to potential civil protest during the anthem. Given the fact that these are are the most experienced athletes on campus, they would likely have the best sense of how the campus community might react. Nearly a quarter of the athletes responded. Here is what they had to say:

Nate Burger, men’s basketball

“I would feel safe as an ONU athlete choosing to kneel but I feel like this environment would have mixed feelings towards it. I feel that there would be some teammates, some coaches, and some administration who feel comfortable with me taking a stance, however I feel there would be others who would not be OK with it and may pressure me to stop. The community I feel would be mixed as well but I feel more people in the community would urge me to stop than would feel comfortable or OK with me doing it.”

Mac Tompkins, men’s soccer

“If I were to choose to kneel, I would feel safe doing so. I feel like the environment at ONU is pretty accepting and open-minded. As long as the individual had a good reason for kneeling, I think it would be supported. Along the same lines, I am confident my teammates, coaches, and community would consider my stance on the issue and be open-minded to it.”

Madison Dramis, women’s golf

“If I chose to kneel during the National Anthem, I do not think the community would support it. Seeing as how greatly it affects those all around the world, I would not feel comfortable if that is what I chose to do. I do believe, however, that if I had a good reason as to why I chose to kneel, I think that my coaches or teammates would support it. But if that is what I wanted/chose to do, I wouldn’t because I would simply not feel comfortable and I do not think anyone would be supportive or understanding.”

Malachi Nolletti, football

“I think if ONU athletes wanted to express themselves in this way, they would feel reasonably safe doing so. I think ONU is a fairly conservative campus when compared with others around the country, so there could be some pushback from a military respect and patriotism standpoint, but I feel we are pretty tight knit and would at the least respect people for their choice and their right to that choice. I know it would be respected from a coaching standpoint as Coach Paul has addressed this already and made it clear that players can express their opinions if they feel compelled."

Jordan Bostater, baseball

“I personally think that I would feel safe, but I also know that with doing this comes a lot of risks of what others would think. I believe that this is an environment that would, for the most part, support the decision to take a knee. To be completely honest, I am not sure what my teammates and coaches would have to think about this. It is something that I would have to discuss with them. If I had to guess, I would think that both my teammates and coaches would support my decisions no matter what I chose to do because as a team, we are all very close and have a great bond.”

Brandon Emert, men’s track & field

“If I or any of my teammates chose to express themselves in any shape or form, I feel that they or myself would be supportive. I know that I would feel safe and welcomed, and I would support my teammates in their decisions as well. They may not agree with what I would protest, but an athletic team is a second family. And that family, amongst disagreeing, shows compassion and support for what the others believe in.”

Joey DiOrio, men’s basketball

“I feel as though the ONU campus community is very respectful of individual political and social views, and there would not be a lot of backlash for sitting for a National Anthem. Therefore, if it matched and aligned with my personal views I would feel safe kneeling for the National Anthem. While people would not like that you are kneeling, they would respect your views and allow you to continue your silent protest (as long as you were impartial and were not making a scene for yourself). However, I will also add that most of the teams are unified and I do not think coaches or other players would allow one individual to sit for the National Anthem. If an action were to occur at an athletic event for one of the ONU sports teams, multiple (or all) participants on the team would have to sit/kneel on a unified front.”

Ashley Grisnik, women’s soccer

“I don’t feel that this is the appropriate environment to express your views and protest in that way, so I don’t think it would be accepted.”

Christian Randolph, football

“I personally feel like there would [be support] from coaches and a number of teammates, but on the other side, from the community and even some teammates, they’d feel strongly against it.”

Zack Goodchild, men’s golf

“I would not feel comfortable choosing to kneel during the anthem. Our team takes pride in being a part of a "Folds of Honor" program where we represent a former Army general on all of our uniforms. My coach would not agree with my decision to kneel, and I feel the athletic department would not either, along with the community. The community at ONU and in Ada has a togetherness that doesn't look to divide. If there are issues, we take action to fix them locally rather than look to grab state and national attention.”

Cody Hurley, men’s tennis

“As an ONU student-athlete, I would not feel comfortable expressing myself in a way during the National Anthem that would cause attention to be directed from my team or the flag to myself. I also feel that kneeling during the National Anthem is something that the university would not support or condone. Ultimately, I do not believe my peers would support this action as being a Polar Bear is an honor and a privilege -- a privilege that shouldn’t be taken lightly.”

Sydney Veon, women’s swimming & diving

“To be quite frank, I don't think it would be received very well throughout the ONU community. Many people on campus are involved, or who have had family involved in the armed forces, and in recent light, it's been politicized as a disgrace to those who have carried and fought for the flag overseas. Even though I see their service as something that has given us the ability to protest, I don't feel like many others hold the same belief. I don't know the exact demographic of where students side on the political spectrum, but I feel as if it is majorly conservative. On a team of 40 men and women, I feel like we represent a decent sample of the population, and thus my hypothetical actions would be received negatively.

I fear that my leadership on my team would be questioned if I participated. As a leader, I feel as if it is my job to act as an impartial moderator during times of controversy or conflict. I wouldn't be opposed to having a discussion about the movement with my teammates, and how it is important for athletes and public figures to use their platform for good.

The university is an institution that accepts diversity and supports free thought, but in my opinion I feel like there are implicit social sanctions within the community that would bar someone from wanting to support the movement, although I wouldn't be surprised if a student has decided to take a knee during the anthem because I believe that our students are very in-touch with what is going on with the world.”

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While ONU has taken a position of acceptance towards civil protest amongst its student-athletes, it is unclear whether the NFL’s precedent from last week will carry over into the college arena.

Aside from the fact that Trump has yet to publicly reprimand college athletes for kneeling, student-athletes also receive much less media exposure than NFL players, especially at the Div. III level. This could impact the amount of protest seen at small college contests.

But there is precedent for kneeling in the OAC, however, as Baldwin Wallace basketball player Jay Battle did so during the National Anthem before every game last winter. When kneeled before the game at Ohio Northern last January, he was met with verbal opposition from a fan at King Horn Sports Center, who shouted Kaepernick-related insults at Battle as he walked onto the court to start the game. Battle just laughed it off. (To listen to my interview with Battle after the incident last year on Sportsbeat 94.9’s The Pep Talk, click play below.)

Simmons said that “it’s hard to say” whether last weekend’s stirrings will lead to kneeling in Div. III contests, although he does believe that it will happen somewhere in the U.S. at this level.

"If someone feels that strongly about it, then we’ll see it," Simmons said. "I just hope that if an athlete feels that way and they express themselves, that they do it the right way. Peaceful protest is part of our country and what we are, and so you can’t extinguish that."