When the national anthem plays before its first exhibition game of the season against East Stroudsburg on Oct. 30, instead of standing for the national anthem, most of the Penn men’s basketball team remains still and seated. All but three players sit solemn on the side benches, eyes gazing down. This was not a spontaneous decision, but a planned, deliberate message of activism spearheaded by players. It was also just the beginning—for the rest of the season, critical and approving eyes alike would not only be on the team's game, but on its collective decision to sit in the moments leading up to tipoff.
Lucas Monroe (C '23), a prime organizer of the team’s decision to sit and captain of the Penn men’s basketball team, explains the core driver behind his decision to sit—and it's inevitably tied to racial justice. “[Racial injustice] was always obviously something that was in the back of my mind, and I thought about [it] naturally.” When the Black Lives Matter movement resurged in the summer of 2020, Lucas felt a need to take more direct action. “Being a person of color, you see a lot of stuff that goes on throughout the country,” says Lucas. “Obviously, a lot of this [larger] conversation was sparked by [the deaths of] George Floyd, Breonna Taylor,” and the many other victims of police brutality.
While the 2020–21 basketball season was canceled for Ivy League sports due to the COVID–19 pandemic, organizing for racial justice was still on the team’s mind. Many witnessed police brutality cases broadcast on national media during lockdown, a time when our social lives were solely oriented around the internet world. It became evident to Lucas and his co–captain Jelani Williams (C '22) that more conversations needed to be had not just within their team, but in the world of sports more broadly. Heading into the 2021–22 season, these conversations were at the front of their minds.
A few days before their preseason game against East Stroudsburg, with things slowly seeming on track for a fully in–person season, Lucas and Jelani started actively organizing between each other and then eventually with the whole team.
“We had a lot of Zoom meetings about the protests around George Floyd, a whole bunch of things around that,” Jelani says. “Coming into this year, along with some of the stuff we've been doing in the community, we wanted to [as a team] make a statement and continue conversation around those issues.” Lucas and Jelani met with the team and shared their ideas, opening a forum for the players to join.
The in–team discussions around the decisions to sit or stand were anything but controversial, according to both players and coaches. They were instead thought–provoking conversations that inspired a learning process within their tight–knit community. “They were pretty intense, pretty real,” Jelani says.
But it wasn’t just a one–off conversation—it remained a continuous dialogue within the team. Particularly as it entered the regular season, the team believed that it was important to continue internally addressing the issues that motivated its decision. These conversations usually took place in the locker room, moments before a game began.
“Almost everybody on the team talked about why exactly they wanted to sit or why they wanted to stand. And then we came to a consensus of everybody being on the same page, and understanding and respecting what one another wanted to do,” says Jelani. For him, it was important that they continue to discuss the racial injustice issues that motivated their activism. He talks about how the teammates of varying opinions were able to arrive at a “unified” place of understanding.
“We had one guy on our team who has some military service in his family. I think his eyes were opened,” says associate head coach of men’s basketball Nat Graham. Hearing teammates’ personal experiences helped illuminate the motivations behind larger protests of the national anthem within the athletic world. “When Kaepernick or other athletes had done similar things, I think he had thought one way about it, and then learning from his teammates, who he loves and is part of a family with, really changed his perspective,” he says.
Though the team members fostered an environment of open–mindedness and unity among themselves, and were confident and proud of their decision, this did not shelter them from its harsh backlash. And they wouldn’t be the first athletes to face criticism for their display of activism.
The Penn players’ decision to sit places them in a larger conversation around the national anthem and its troubling components. The first modern United States national anthem protests in sports trace back to Colin Kaepernick, the NFL star quarterback who knelt during the anthem all through the 2016 season he played for San Francisco 49ers.
However, the media attention Kaepernick garnered resulted in backlash, mainly from conservatives. President Donald Trump publicly denounced the quarterback’s actions, claiming them to be a “total disrespect of our heritage” and called on the NFL to fire players.
After the 2016 season, Kaepernick became a free agent. An NFL team has yet to sign him, even to this day. Kaepernick’s outstanding performance on the field makes it hard for audiences and analysts to not attribute this surprising outcome to political reasons.
The momentum of the national anthem protest continued after Kaepernick. Players from the Baltimore Ravens, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Miami Dolphins joined in during the beginning of the 2017 seasons. That year, the Associated Press made an estimate of 204 players who elected to kneel or sit in protest of the national anthem. Throughout the nation, professional and collegiate teams across the country followed suit.
College basketball teams joining the national anthem protest is not a new sight. Eight players from the University of Mississippi basketball team decided to kneel during the national anthem, making headlines in February 2019. The protest reached a new height after the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in 2020 and the Capitol Hill riot in 2021. In March of last year, basketball players from schools including Georgetown, Colgate, Ohio State, Virginia Tech, the University of Florida, and the University of Kentucky led similar movements. All but two Drexel basketball players kneeled for the national anthem at the NCAA tournament in 2021. Their protest lasted throughout the 2020–21 season. The Ivy League did not participate in any sports competitions during that time, but Penn players joined in as soon as the 2021–22 season began last November.
Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the Penn Graduate School of Education, observes in the basketball team what he believes to be a rare occurrence in the campus space. “It seems to me that the players feel free to either engage in the protest, or not,” he says. “And I think that should be a model for the way that we conduct businesses of all kinds on our campuses. But unfortunately, it isn’t.” Zimmerman cites poll literature that reveals high percentages of undergraduates who are afraid to express their opinions.
“I think we could all stand to learn from the way that these basketball teams have handled this,” says Zimmerman. Zimmerman has been an adamant supporter of freedom of speech. In his op-ed published in USA Today, he applauds the basketball players’ respect for each other and their decisions. He believes that free expression is a key vehicle for learning on college campuses. “We can’t learn from each other if we’re not free to speak,” he says.
But the team’s activism certainly hasn’t been met with all praise. Graham notes previous concerns over the potential negative consequences to the basketball players’ decision to sit during the national anthem, especially earlier in the season. “As coaching staff, some of us were concerned that the guys didn't completely grasp potential ramifications,” says Graham.
Aside from coverage by The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Penn men’s basketball players have attracted media attention from more conservative groups like The College Fix following their decision to sit during the national anthem.
Most notably, Penn’s mega–donor James Maguire, a prominent conservative philanthropist, sent a letter to President Amy Gutmann mid–November, pulling donations from the Maguire Foundation in opposition of the players’ decision to sit. The letter states, “I am serving notice to you that the Maguire Foundation and I personally will not be renewing any scholarship gifts or pledges (present or future) nor undertaking any future commitments to Penn.”
Maguire also demanded that Saint Joseph’s University not host the Penn men's basketball team in its December game. The stakes were high for St. Joe’s—Maguire recently made the largest donation in the university's history. But Maguire’s attempt turned out unsuccessful. Penn’s game with Saint Joseph’s took place as planned on Dec. 8 of last year.
Maguire, a Korean War veteran who enrolled at St. Joe’s through the G.I. Bill, considers the national anthem protest a disrespect to the flag and the country. However, Jelani finds Maguire’s argument frustrating and problematic given the bill’s racist history.
“It was interesting, learning about him and how the G.I. Bill got him an education at St. Joe's,” says Jelani. “The same bill was basically excluding some Black veterans at the time from some of those same benefits that helped him build his wealth.”
To Jelani, Maguire’s statement was built on layers of deep–rooted racial injustice: “If the shoe was on the other foot, and it was a Black veteran, who had built his wealth following the war, and came back and wanted to silence some young white kids that are trying to make a statement about what they believe in and what needs to change,” says Jelani, “I just wonder how that would have been received.”
“Even though the school endorses us sitting, it's still only the decision of the 20 of us and our coaches. It has nothing to do with the rest of Penn. And it obviously has nothing to do with St. Joe's,” Lucas says. He sees Maguire’s decision to pull donations as an attempt to politicize a rather personal decision.
Jelani notes a response that stood out the most so far in the season, when he was called out directly by a spectator from the other team in the middle of a game. “One of the crazier instances to me was that Florida State game. There was a guy who was sitting on the floor, basically in courtside seats, across the bench from us,” says Jelani. “I was guarding the inbound pass. And he stood up and looked me in my face, and told me to stand for the anthem next time. He called me the n–word.” For Jelani, it was an experience that could only be taken with shock.
“I think that was probably the biggest ‘wow’ moment for me, just being able to hear something like that so close and see the way his face looked when he said that to me,” says Jelani.
But none of this wavered the team’s activist stance or its commitment to staying true to its ideals. “We're very aware of how some people are going to view it,” says Lucas. “You just live with the good and the bad.” Ultimately, the coaching staff has remained supportive and stood by the team’s personal reasons for sitting during the anthem.
For Jelani and Lucas, negative responses were expected from the very beginning. “We're very aware that not everyone is going to appreciate the message that we're trying to send,” says Lucas. “When it was happening, we were trying to just focus on the game.”
“Ultimately, what our guys wanted was a conversation. I thought that was so mature,” says Graham, who also recently published an op-ed in The Daily Pennsylvanian about the team’s national anthem protest. He remarks on the exceptional qualities he sees on the team and the need for such activism: “Their point was by doing something that was less public, that conversation wouldn’t necessarily have happened. ”
“[In the anthem], we talk about freedom, justice, liberty, and equality for all, and that's a great ideal that America tries to model itself after,” says Jelani. But with ongoing issues around police brutality, racial injustice, and the prison industrial complex, among others, he found it hard to view the tradition of standing during the anthem as a simple act of patriotism.
“I think part of the symbolism behind sitting for the anthem is understanding that it doesn't always live up those ideals,” says Jelani. “And that's part of what our protest is—trying to highlight that.”
Jelani believes the objective of the team's activism is less about actually making direct change, and more about bringing awareness to the inequalities the team sees in its society. “If we can get just a few people to educate themselves more about some of the issues that we're trying to bring to light, and get them to talk about it with someone who might not agree with us, and bring everybody to more of a common ground, I think that's a mission accomplished,” he says.
Lucas echoes Jelani’s motivations. “However many people we can reach, we want to reach them,” he says. “It just is what it is, we're fully prepared for the bad stuff that's going to happen. It just brings us closer together. We stood together. And that's all that really matters.”
Despite pandemic disruptions and the efforts put into organizing the movement, the team’s performance has been stellar so far this season. Just last Friday, Jan. 28, the men’s basketball team scored its first win at Harvard in ten years, ranking third in the Ivy League as it heads into its Feb. 4 game against Columbia. The Quakers currently hold an 8–12 record for the season, 5–2 in Ivy League play.
For the players, it's all worth it—especially if it means that the attention they're getting brings awareness to the work they're trying to highlight with their activism. “In our mind, we're reaching people, even if we're getting a negative reaction,” says Lucas. “They're thinking about what we're doing, and they're noticing. That was always our biggest goal, and [continues] to be our goal.”