Bluefield College, an NAIA school based out of Bluefield, Virginia, forfeited their men’s basketball game on Thursday night after suspending multiple players for kneeling during the National Anthem before several games over the months of January and February.
Bluefield College president David Olive released a statement on Thursday, stating that after players knelt during multiple games over the last couple of months, he had asked them to stop. When they continued, he suspended all the athletes involved, which resulted in Thursday’s forfeiture against Reinhardt College.
“The basis for my decision stemmed from my own awareness of how kneeling is perceived by some in our country, and I did not think a number of our alumni, friends, and donors of the College would view the act of kneeling during the anthem in a positive way,” Olive said.
The suspensions were handed down after media reports surfaced on Feb. 1 of the players kneeling during the anthem before the previous home game and at two prior road games. Once he received word of the incidents, he informed head coach Richard Morgan that kneeling during the anthem would not be allowed. Olive had been having discussions with coaches, players and the school’s athletic director, Tonia White prior to the media reports.
Bluefield football player Jewels Gray, who is close to many of the basketball players that were suspended, said that the team was told before the season that they had the full support of the athletic director and the school president to kneel if they felt it was necessary. Gray also said that the players were told they are not allowed to release a statement or speak with the media regarding the suspensions.
Olive said that while he respected the players’ right to speak their mind, he felt that the message was being misconstrued by their actions. The players had told Olive that they did not intend to disrespect or offend anyone, and shared their experiences of dealing with racism while on campus with Olive.
“I further told them that their intended message in bringing awareness of racial injustices was being diluted or completely lost because some saw their act of kneeling as being disrespectful to the flag, our country, and to our veterans,” Olive said in the statement. “In my opinion, their message was not being heard.”
Gray, who staged a walkout during football practice in support of the basketball team, suggested that the media reports angered at least one major donor – which was the key reason behind Olive issuing the suspensions.
Olive mentioned that players did inquire about their First Amendment right being violated; he informed them that this did not apply in this situation because as they are student athletes, they are representing the school.
“We are a private entity, not a governmental entity,” Olive said in his statement. “We have policies and guidelines throughout the student handbook and the academic catalog that limit certain rights you otherwise might have elsewhere, such as in your home or in a public venue. The most important to me as it pertains to this matter, however, is what I shared earlier. When someone puts on a uniform or is performing a function on behalf of Bluefield College, that person is now representing Bluefield College. Heightened expectations are now placed on that individual as to what s/he can and cannot do or say as a representative of the College.”
In the school’s most recent census (2019), 84 percent of the student population identified as white, while about 10 percent identified as Black. However, a majority of the school’s athletes are Black.
Gray’s teammate, Colin O’Donnell, released a statement over Facebook that caused division amongst the community.
“Over the past few days, Bluefield College athletics has been put center stage in our locality over both the kneeling during the national anthem as well as the subsequent decisions made following it,” O’Donnell, a military veteran, wrote. “As a football team, we can not be blind or deaf to the social issues within our country & the deep divide we collectively face in addressing them head on. This week we talked amongst our team and expressed that despite outside forces or conflicting opinions, we remain one unit, indivisible. One of the hallmarks of our constitutional republic is our first amendment right; this ability to peaceably hold different beliefs and opinions while living our truth are what makes us unique and separates us from those in our world who look to silence others on issues which are uncomfortable to face.
“As a team, we are focused and dedicated to one another. We go out of our way every season to make real, positive changes in our community. Whether we agree or disagree on the way which express our concerns …..when we step on the field we are one unit, one family and we believe in each other.”
Gray responded to the volatile comments that were spewed toward his teammate, stating that the community needs to be more aware of the issues at hand.
“Most of the student-athletes here are African American,” Gray said, “but the city and the community — if you look at the comments [O’Donnell] is receiving on Facebook, people are putting him down so bad. All types of ugly comments. The city and the community of Bluefield College really have a lot of people who need to be opened up to this. I’m not saying they have hatred in their hearts, but I feel like they need to be opened up to what’s going on.”