Bluefield, VA – Bluefield University President David Olive releases the following statement on behalf of Bluefield University:
“Dear Campus Community —
There are many questions and misunderstandings surrounding the one-game suspensions issued to players on the men’s basketball team yesterday. While Zoom meetings with student athletes and athletics personnel are planned for Sunday, I want to share how we arrived at the decision we did yesterday and the reasons why the sanctions were made.
During the home basketball game against Bryan College on Saturday, Jan. 30, the men’s team members kneeled during the National Anthem, and a local television station captured their actions on video that later aired during the 11:00 PM news report. The station requested comment from the University, and a statement was prepared and released to the television station without any notification or involvement with the Director of Public Relations and Marketing or me.
On Monday morning, Feb. 1, Advancement staff became aware through social media of what occurred at Saturday’s game and notified me and other university leadership. I immediately contacted VP Tonia Walker and requested a meeting with Coach Richard Morgan and her as soon as possible. I also conveyed to VP Walker that, for future situations such as this, I and others need to be notified and involved much earlier in the process.
Later in the afternoon, VP Walker, Coach Morgan, and I met. Coach Morgan shared with us that he was unaware of the players’ kneeling until the Saturday game; however, he learned from the team after the game that they had been kneeling at the two previous away games at Bryan College (Jan. 23) and Kentucky Christian University (Jan. 26). (Due to how Coach Morgan was positioned in reference to the team during the playing of the anthem, he was not cognizant of their kneeling.) After discussing the situation, I shared with Coach Morgan that kneeling during the anthem would not be allowed going forward, and I instructed him to share that with his team. I then instructed VP Walker to communicate this prohibition to all the head coaches so that similar incidents would not occur with other teams. I offered to both Coach Morgan and VP Walker to speak directly with the players or coaches if they thought it would be helpful.
The basis for my decision stemmed from my own awareness of how kneeling is perceived by some in our country, and I did not think a number of our alumni, friends, and donors of the University would view the act of kneeling during the anthem in a positive way. As I conveyed this to VP Walker and Coach Morgan, I denoted that anytime a student athlete puts on a jersey that says “Bluefield University” on it, the message is no longer just the student athlete’s message but that it becomes the message of Bluefield University. Pointing to the already fractured and divided nature of our country, I did not want Bluefield Univresity contributing to the further divide; rather, I wanted the University to bring people together in a united effort to address issues of racial injustice.
As last week progressed, I learned the players once again kneeled during the anthem at the away game hosted at Truett McConnell University (Feb. 2), ignoring Coach Morgan’s suggestions of alternate forms of more constructive protest, as well as my directive that players not kneel during the anthem. At the following away game at Columbia International University (Feb. 4), Coach Morgan kept the team in the locker room during the anthem.
Again, I reached out to Coach Morgan to offer my willingness to meet and talk with the team. He invited me to meet with the team on Friday afternoon, Feb. 5. During the nearly two-hour meeting with the team, I shared with them the reasons why they were not being allowed to kneel during the anthem (see above). I further told them that their intended message in bringing awareness of racial injustices was being diluted or completely lost because some saw their act of kneeling as being disrespectful to the flag, our country, and to our veterans. In my opinion, their message was not being heard.
As we talked, team members shared their intent was not to be disrespectful to the flag; rather, it was just the opposite. They also shared personal stories of their communities and life experiences. Some shared their own experiences with racial injustices, while also citing numerous injustices they have witnessed others enduring, even to the point of death.
While we could not reconcile their desire to kneel during the anthem with the University’s policy prohibiting that practice, we discussed options, such as staying in the locker room, to avoid consequences related to kneeling on court during the anthem. I did commit to them an opportunity to be heard by our campus community. More will be shared later, but the University Leadership Team is already at work planning this campus-wide forum.
Additionally, Coach Morgan and I shared our ideas of what we thought were more constructive ways to have their message of racial injustice heard. Some of those ideas were having: a student athlete read a statement about racial injustice over the PA system before each home game, as well as for all teams’ home games; the team taking a knee during their introductions; the team taking a knee at tip-off. We concluded our time together in prayer, and I shared that I valued each one of them.
The following away game against Montreat College (Feb. 6) was uneventful as the team remained in the locker room during the anthem. Shortly thereafter and inexplicably, on Monday, Feb. 8, the video from the news story on Jan. 30 began to gain more attraction in social media spaces, particularly within the Bluefield community and surrounding region. A decision was made on Tuesday, Feb. 9, to issue a press release in an attempt to respond to erroneous, and at times maligning, information being shared about our student athletes and the University. The University Leadership Team participated in the crafting of the release. Great lengths were taken to express the University’s position without positioning either our student athletes or those in the community in a negative light. Our attempted message was focused on: the values that make Bluefield University a special place; the space needed for conversations so that, together, we can learn and grow; and our desire to bring about racial justice, equality, and reconciliation.
That message, however, was overshadowed as the team once again knelt during the anthem at the home game with Tennessee Wesleyan University (Feb. 9). Following the game, I shared with Coach Morgan that there would be consequences for the actions of the players for violating the University policy. I also asked VP Walker to recommend what those consequences should be. Throughout the evening of Feb. 9 and on into Wednesday, Feb. 10, I had conversations with Officers of the Board of Trustees, VP Walker and other university leaders, along with a conferral with Coach Morgan, VP Walker, and myself before reaching a decision on the sanction.
It goes without saying that this has been a challenging process for all parties involved. I have heard and I understand the perspective of our players as to why they desire to kneel during the National Anthem. I also know this form of protest immediately shuts down a number of individuals from listening to the intended message because of their perspective regarding the flag. No individual’s sincere motives are inherently wrong. But I continue to contend that we will not get to where we want AND NEED to get as a country in addressing these racial issues without making honest attempts at creating pathways that bring people together for a common cause.
I have been asked by the basketball team, as well as other students, about their First Amendment rights of free speech. As I shared with the team and these other students, you give up some of those rights when you step foot on our campus. We are a private entity, not a governmental entity. We have policies and guidelines throughout the student handbook and the academic catalog that limit certain rights you otherwise might have elsewhere, such as in your home or in a public venue. The most important to me as it pertains to this matter, however, is what I shared earlier. When someone puts on a uniform or is performing a function on behalf of Bluefield University, that person is now representing Bluefield University. Heightened expectations are now placed on that individual as to what s/he can and cannot do or say as a representative of the University.
I close by making the same offer that I shared with the basketball team; I will kneel with you anywhere at any time as an expression of my solidarity with you to bring about racial justice and equality, except during the National Anthem. I am with you. The University’s leadership is with you. With God’s help and his endless mercy and grace, we will make a positive impact in raising awareness of racial injustices and bringing about change.”