You thought the biggest controversy of the Kentucky men's basketball team's season was going to be that 1-6 start? Think again.The Wildcats were mo
You thought the biggest controversy of the Kentucky men’s basketball team’s season was going to be that 1-6 start? Think again.
The Wildcats were more than 500 miles from the Bluegrass State when they knelt during the national anthem Saturday at Florida, but fans and others back home noticed.
A sheriff and jailer burned their UK shirts in protest. One county’s leaders passed a resolution calling for taxpayer money to stop flowing to the university. And one of the highest-ranking Kentucky legislators cried on the Senate floor, saying that the players’ action was a disrespectful gesture to military members such as his son.
“People have died for this country,” said Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester. “They have died to allow young men to go out on the floor and have the opportunity to play sports and speak their mind.”
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Kentucky players, who chose to kneel following last week’s riot at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump as well as a summer of protests for racial justice, said they expected a backlash. But did they know the response would be so strong so quickly?
“With the world we’re living in now, I think everybody knew,” forward Isaiah Jackson said at a press conference Monday. “At the end of the day, people are going to say what they’re going to say. People can do what they want. It’s a free country.”
It’s a controversy that escalated quickly, and it’s not as simple as a block or charge call.
Here’s what happened:
UK players decide to kneel before game
UK players decided 90 minutes before Saturday’s game they wanted to kneel during the national anthem, coach John Calipari said. Veteran players approached Calipari before the game about their intentions, he said, and the coach offered to join them.
Players and coaches locked arms and knelt during the pregame national anthem, with Calipari placing his hand over his heart. The Wildcats defeated Florida 76-58, marking UK’s third win in a row.
Why did the Wildcats kneel?
Calipari and guard Davion Mintz said after the game the decision to kneel “speaks for itself,” while forward Keion Brooks said the action was in response to Wednesday’s riot along with “some other things that we don’t see that go on every day that are unacceptable.”
Calipari defended his players from criticism immediately after the game.
“These kids are good kids,” the coach said. “They care about this country and all the other stuff. They’re trying to figure out life and making statements they think they have to make. I want to listen to what they’re saying, and then I’ll support them if they want me to be there.”
As controversy brewed back in the Bluegrass State, the coach took additional steps to clarify what happened on his Monday night radio show.
Six UK players come from military backgrounds, Calipari said on the program, as does Mitch Barnhart, the university’s athletic director. What the Wildcats did Saturday wasn’t intended to disrespect the military, Calipari said; it was intended to “bring people together” peacefully.
Still, the coach said, the players have made their feelings known at this point. While their statement should not have been taken as a sign of partisanship or disrespect toward the military, Calipari said, he requested that his team’s players work toward uniting people.
“Look, you did your civic duty, you voted. Now, you want to bring people together. Let’s figure out how you do that. Some of this might be off away from the media,” Calipari said he told his players. “I don’t want these kids to be in anything that separates — including our fans.”
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How did people react?
You wouldn’t be reading this story if everybody had just accepted the team’s statement and moved on.
Laurel County Sheriff John Root and Jailer Jamie Mosley made a statement of their own. In a viral video posted on social media, the pair, who were “kind of disgusted and outraged” about “the disrespect that (the Wildcats) showed last night,” set two old UK shirts on fire. Mosley encouraged fans who felt the same way to come to the Laurel County Jail on Monday to exchange their Kentucky gear for “Back the Blue” pro-police shirts.
Members of the Knox County Fiscal Court, meanwhile, denounced the team in a resolution and called for elected officials in the commonwealth to “reallocate tax funding from unpatriotic recipients to hardworking Kentucky Taxpayer’s (sic) across this commonwealth,” as the team’s pregame gesture “lacks respect for the veterans that have served our country.”
The most emotional response, though, came from Stivers. He delivered an emotional address Monday night on the Senate floor, noting that as a father of an active military member and the nephew of a Korean War veteran, he was “hurt” by the team’s actions.
Their pregame statement was legal, he noted, but Stivers — who said he condemns what happened at the Capitol riot — questioned whether Saturday’s game was the right time and place to take action.
He asked people to “think about the older people like me who have read these letters of their uncles and know that their fathers and their grandfathers served and were willing to serve even to the point they may not come back.”
In a joint statement, Barnhart and university President Eli Capilouto stood by the team. In a country built on free speech, they said, it’s important for young students to find their voices.
“We won’t always agree on every issue,” their statement said. “However, we hope to agree about the right of self-expression, which is so fundamental to who we are as an institution of higher learning. We live in a polarized and deeply divided country. Our hope — and that of our players and our coaches — is to find ways to bridge divides and unify.”
What has Calipari previously said?
Calipari has spoken out on social issues and against racism before.
In 2016 he noted he’d seen employees at stores and airlines offer different treatment to him as opposed to Bruiser Flint, a Black assistant coach at UK.
“I’ve been on an airplane where we’re in first class and they come over to me, ‘Hey sir, would you like something to drink?’” Calipari told reporters. “And then they go to Bruiser, and what do they say to him? ‘Can I see your ticket?’ Can you see his ticket? You know me: ‘Why didn’t you ask me for my ticket? Why you asking him for his ticket?’”
And in 2017, a memo UK gave to players that outlined talking points with media members discouraged athletes from discussing prospects of an undefeated season or jumping to the NBA but had a different message when it came to racial unity.
“On the current social issues and political landscape, we are NOT going to tell you not to answer these or to express your opinion,” the memo read. “Some things are bigger than basketball, and the current landscape is.”
While the memo specifically stated players were welcome to speak out about social issues, it did request that those athletes know the facts and be prepared to deal with people who may disagree.
In the press conference Monday, forward Olivier Sarr said the team had not yet decided whether to continue to kneel during the national anthem in upcoming games, though the team has not been on the court for the anthem during home games this season at Rupp Arena in Lexington. They are scheduled to play Alabama at 9 p.m., ET Tuesday.
Calipari said he still wants his players to express themselves peacefully in a heated political environment. In his eyes, however, the next steps should be about finding ways to unite fans.
“I said, you can stand up and scream and all the things, but at the end of the day, what are you doing to bring people together?” he said. “(We’re) trying to keep these kids on track, trying to focus, trying to keep our fans being positive about these kids. That’s why I keep coming back to how they pick people up and what they do. That’s everything we’ve been trying to do here.”
Sarr, who thanked Calipari for joining the Wildcats on one knee, said unity was the point of their statement.
“I think it sends a big message,” Sarr said. “We’re a unit, and that’s what we want this country to be. We are all together in it.”
Contributing: Jon Hale, Emma Austin and Billy Kobin.