University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto voiced his support Monday for the university’s men’s basketball team and coach, who knelt during the national anthem during a game over the weekend to protest racial injustice and the storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of President Trump last week.
The team’s decision to kneel was harshly criticized by fans on social media and by public officials, media reports said. The Louisville Courier-Journal reported that a Kentucky state senator with family members in the military cried as he spoke on the Senate floor about how he was “hurt” by the demonstration and said people “have died to allow young men to … have the opportunity to play sports and speak their mind.” Two Kentucky law enforcement officials were taped burning a Wildcats basketball shirt on Sunday and one said the team “disrespected the American flag,” the Courier-Journal reported.
Capilouto said in a joint statement with Mitch Barnhart, UK’s director of athletics, that they support the players’ and head coach John Calipari’s right to kneel, which they called an act of free speech and expression.
“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,” the statement said. “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 a Monday radio show posted by UK Athletics that his players saw the images of the Capitol riot last week and “wanted to have their voices heard,” asking the coach to kneel with them. The demonstration did not have to do with the military and was not intended to offend anyone, Calipari said. Six Wildcats players even have family connections to the military, he said.
“I held my heart, but I did kneel with them because I support the guys,” Calipari said. “This came from their hearts and it was peaceful. It was peaceful. They did it to bring people together.”