STORM LAKE, Iowa | Reporters across the country went on alert following President Trump's statements that owners of teams in the National Football League should fire players who choose to take a knee during the national anthem.
Several players had done so for nearly a year, following the lead of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began sitting, then kneeling, during the national anthem in 2016, saying he couldn't stand during the Star Spangled Banner because doing so would show support for a country that, in his view, doesn't treat minorities fairly. Kaepernick may have sought to ignite a national conversation about race.
Trump, apparently had seen enough, and didn't mince words in a speech on Sept. 22, saying, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son-of-a-bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired. He's fired!"
Two days later, a few NFL teams remained in the locker-room during the anthem. The number of players who joined the protest grew 20-fold, perhaps many of them protesting the president, or his tough language. Hundreds of players who did stand for the anthem locked arms with one another rather than standing with their right hand placed over their heart.
Locally, reporters heard murmurs of possible peaceful protests at high school and college football games. The only one I know about occurred at my alma mater, Buena Vista University, where several players and cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem prior to the Beavers' homecoming contest in Storm Lake against Luther College on Sept. 30.
I'm told that a few fans reacted by leaving the game immediately. I've heard that some BVU alums and donors voiced their displeasure with Joshua Merchant, Buena Vista's president. Merchant listened to concerns from both sides before issuing a statement one week ago, pledging to "deepen the conservation for the better."
"To our students who protested -- you were not only noticed, but you were also heard," he wrote.
Merchant spent the following week meeting with and listening to students, faculty, staff members, alumni and community members. Ultimately, he believes the parties found an alternative as the season progresses. The Beavers play at Washington University in St. Louis at 1 p.m. Saturday. The squad's next home game is at 1 p.m. Oct. 21.
"Moving forward," Merchant continued, "BVU student athletes and cheerleaders will stand for the national anthem as a unified team. However, student athletes and cheerleaders will also be allowed to kneel before the anthem if they choose to do so."
Merchant has promised to physically stand at their side as "a demonstration of support for their desire to impact social change, and I commend them for their courage. BVU, nor our student athletes, meant any disrespect for the national anthem or the flag. Many of you found the action upsetting, therefore, please accept my sincere apology."
I heard some of the backlash. And while I was a bit surprised at the protest, I also recognized that people at Buena Vista support and uphold the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and the right to assemble in peace. The place is not anti-flag, nor anti-military. When it was a college, BV educated a pair of young men who earned the Congressional Medal of Honor in World War II. There's a thriving ROTC program and house on campus.
At a panel discussion held Wednesday at Buena Vista, one not devoted to the incident, the kneeling protest issue surfaced. Not once did any student say they meant to disrespect the flag or our country's troops. Rather, cheerleader Emily Van Donselaar said, they took a knee to show solidarity for their peers, some of them minorities, some who have been on the receiving end of racial slurs, taunts and jokes.
Another student, Daniel Walker, detailed how he was racially profiled in the past, how he, a large African-American man, became the suspect in an assault, rather than the smaller white man who allegedly assaulted him.
Walker didn't attend the football game on Sept. 30, but had he been there he would have likely exercised his right to free speech. He also noted that protestors have other avenues; some write poetry or music, some assemble in peace; others commit to do what they can to educate others, often through an openness and willingness to communicate and empathize.
One student used the word humility when describing cultural awareness.
Merchant joined nearly 90 others, most of them BVU students, in listening to 90 minutes of discourse covering micro-aggressive behavior, racial slurs and how many students have become alleys of those treated unfairly.
Kaepernick and Trump ignited a nationwide talk. Now, will we listen?
Folks around Storm Lake, at least, will get a chance as Buena Vista hosts a panel discussion from 6-7:30 p.m. Monday in Anderson Auditorium. "Reaching Understanding: A Civil Exchange of Perspectives" is free and open to the public.