University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto and athletic director Mitch Barnhart issued a joint statement Monday in support of the Wildcats' basketball team, led by head coach John Calipari, taking a knee during the national anthem before Saturday's game against Florida.
ESPN's Myron Medcalf provided the full statement after there were calls from some local officials in Kentucky to defund the university:
"A value we all hold dear in our country is the right of free speech and self-expression. That right for young students such as these is important, too, as they learn, grow, and find out who they are and what they believe. We won't always agree on every issue. 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."
Calipari said on his weekly radio show Monday the decision to kneel was a player-led effort after a pro-Donald Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. He also clarified that kneeling for the anthem is not anti-military, per Medcalf:
"It was all the images that they saw and they wanted to have their voice heard, and I said, well, 'Tell me what it's about.' They talked to me about it. Then they said, 'We'd like you to kneel with us,' which I did. I held my heart, but I did kneel with them because I support the guys. But it wasn't about military. Six of these players come from military families. ... This wasn't about the military."
Taking a knee as a form of protest became prominent after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started doing it in 2016, and it became part of the Black Lives Matter cause throughout 2020 as part of the continued push for social justice and racial equality.
Former NFL long snapper Nate Boyer, who served in the U.S. Army as a Green Beret and helped Kaepernick formulate the protest, denounced notions that kneeling is unpatriotic in June:
Nate Boyer @NateBoyer37
Welp, it’s #FlagDay 🇺🇸 Just a friendly reminder that it’s not racist to honor it & it’s not unpatriotic to kneel before it. From Independence Hall in Philly to the friggin’ Moon in Outer Space the Ragged Old Flag has endured; a symbol of freedom & hope, not yet experienced by ALL https://t.co/hP1BbHudxQ
Kentucky forward Olivier Sarr was among the players to say Monday they expected backlash but still felt it was important to make their feelings known, per Medcalf:
"I think our action speaks for itself. What happened in the past few days, few weeks and even during quarantine, we just want to show support for our community and raise awareness on the things that happened lately. It comes from a place of understanding peaceful conversations and being open-minded. That's it."
The Wildcats, who scored a 76-58 victory over the Gators to extended their winning streak to three games, are back in action Tuesday night to face off with Alabama. It's a nationally broadcast game with tipoff at Rupp Arena scheduled for 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.