An NAIA school in Virginia canceled a men’s basketball game Thursday after players were suspended for kneeling during the national anthem during several games in January and February.

In a statement Thursday, Bluefield College President David Olive said that after players knelt in several games in January and February, even after asking them to stop, he decided to suspend all participating athletes, leading to the cancellation of the NAIA Division II Appalachian Athletic Conference game against Reinhardt.

“The basis for my decision was my own understanding of how some people in our country view kneeling, and I didn’t think some of our alumni, friends and donors to the university would view the act of kneeling during the national anthem in a positive light,” Olive said.

In a statement, Olive, who is white, spoke of an ongoing discussion with coaches, players and the school’s athletic director, Tonya Walker, who is black, about stopping her from kneeling during the national anthem, but the suspension came only after press reports last week.

Olive said that on February 1 he learned that players were kneeling during the anthem in a previous home game and then learned that the same thing had happened in two previous away games. He then informed coach Richard Morgan that it was unacceptable to kneel during the anthem.

This is exactly the opposite of what was said to the basketball team before the season began, according to Bluefield soccer player Jewels Gray, who is good friends with many members of the basketball team and who discussed the suspension with the players. Gray said the basketball players had been informed that they were not allowed to publish their own statements or speak to the media.

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“Why does our school contradict what they said?” said Mr. Gray. “We had meetings with the athletic director and the president before the season and they told us we could get on our knees and they would support and back us 100 percent.

On February 2, the players again kneeled during the anthem before the game, ignoring instructions. In the next game on February 4, Morgan left the team in the locker room during the anthem to avoid further controversy.

Olive said she had contacted Morgan and the team members to discuss the protests and said he understood their message and supported the calls for racial justice, but disagreed with them during the national anthem.

“I also told them that their message of calling attention to racial injustice was diluted or completely lost because some saw their knee-jerk reaction as disrespect for the flag, our country and our veterans,” Olive said in a statement. “In my opinion, their message has not been heard.”

Olive said the players told her that it was not their intention to be disrespectful and that they told personal stories about the racism they had faced. In response, Olive said the campus administration is currently working to establish a forum to discuss racial disparities.

At the next game on February 6, the team again remained in the locker room, but on February 8 a local TV station broadcast a video of the players kneeling as part of a news report. The next day, Olive said the school had issued a statement with information from the players in response to “false and sometimes malicious information about our student-athletes and the university.”

However, the players knelt for the anthem again that night before Bluefield’s home game against Tennessee Wesleyan. After the game, Olive told Morgan that there would be consequences.

“It goes without saying that this process has been difficult for all involved,” Mr. Olive said in a statement. “I have heard the views of our players and I understand why they want to kneel during the national anthem. I also know that this form of protest immediately disqualifies many people who do not hear the intended message because of their view of the flag. A person’s sincere motives are not in themselves false. But I maintain that we will not get our way and our country will not get its way if we address these racial issues without an honest attempt to bring people together for a common goal.

Gray said that recent media reports had caused outrage among at least one influential donor, prompting Olive to announce that it would cease operations.

In his remarks, Mr. Olive stated that the players were asking if their First Amendment rights were being violated and he informed the players that those rights did not apply in this situation.

Athletes from the men’s and women’s basketball, soccer and soccer teams participated in a video conference discussion this week, Gray said, arguing that their First Amendment rights were being violated and discussing ways to address school policies.

“We are a private organization, not a public organization,” Mr. Olive said in a statement. “In the student handbook and the university yearbook, we have rules and policies that limit some rights that you have elsewhere, such as at home or in a public place. But the most important thing to me in this area is what I said earlier”. When a person puts on a uniform or holds an office on behalf of Bluefield College, that person now represents Bluefield College. That person now has higher expectations of what he or she can and cannot do or say as a representative of the college.

After his suspension, Gray decided to support the basketball players by organizing a walk during football practice. Because of COVID-19, Bluefield plays in the spring semester. With the game scheduled for Saturday, the coach hopes to avoid a major interruption in practice. Gray agreed to be the only player to leave, while the others who accepted the protest were allowed to stay and train.

Gray then posted a photo of his protest on Twitter, which was retweeted by several members of the Bluefield basketball team.

Today I stood up for what I believe in and peacefully protested social injustice during soccer practice. Lately, there has been colorism against student athletes on my college campus and in my community, and it is wrong.
I’m hoping for support on Twitter ✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿 pic.twitter.com/FrayzzrAH3

– Jewels Gray (@15_toetap) February 11, 2021

“I didn’t think the soccer team should practice if the basketball team can’t play just because they stand up for what they believe in,” Gray said. “I peacefully protested the practice, but I didn’t ask anyone to let me practice. I stood in front of [the team’s prayer] and told them what was going on. I know we all have the same goal.

Gray’s teammate, Army veteran Collin O’Donnell, made a statement Thursday from the entire football team.

“Over the past few days, Bluefield College’s athletics have been at the center of our attention, both during the national anthem and in the decisions made afterwards,” O’Donnell wrote. “As a soccer team, we cannot be blind or deaf to the social problems of our country and the deep divisions we must collectively overcome without stopping there. This week we have spoken and expressed among ourselves that, despite outside forces or opposing views, we remain united, indivisible. One of the hallmarks of our constitutional republic is our First Amendment rights; this ability to peacefully hold different beliefs and opinions and live by the truth is what makes us unique and sets us apart from those in our world who seek to silence others on difficult issues.

“As a team, we are focused and committed to each other. Each season, we strive to make a real and positive difference in our community. Whether we agree or disagree on how we express our concerns…..when we take the field, we are one unit, one family, and we believe in each other.

According to the 2019 school census, nearly 84% of students were white, while only slightly more than 10% were black.

“Most of the student-athletes here are African-American, but the city and the community – if you look at the comments [O’Donnell] gets on Facebook, people put him down like that. All kinds of unkind comments. There are really a lot of people in the town and in the community of Bluefield College who should be open to that. I’m not saying they have hate in their hearts, but I think they should be open to it.

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