Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Drake’s Takes: Breaking Down Nebraska Athletics’ National Anthem Controversies

November 19, 2021

Somehow, we’re still talking about the national anthem in sports in 2021. 

Within the last few weeks, Nebraska’s basketball and volleyball programs have had controversies related to the song’s pregame playing.

Let’s start with hoops. State governor Pete Ricketts put out a statement two weeks ago, condemning the playing of “other” anthems along with the Star-Spangled Banner. Of course, this is referring to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black national anthem. 

The song rose to higher prominence in the United States in the summer of last year, and that carried into the rest of the year. Nebraska basketball started playing the song prior to home games last season, but Ricketts apparently didn’t catch wind of it until fans were allowed back into the stadium this year. 

This, at best, is a silly contention by Ricketts. It’s still a conversation because he’s the governor, and a lot of people in the state also happen to agree with him. But there’s not much basis to it. Nobody is more divided than they already were because of an extra three minutes spent playing a good song prior to the game. 

I don’t really care for the playing of any anthem pre-game. Since it is a tradition that has been set in sports, it’s nice that the Black national anthem is a part of that. But if Nebraska hadn’t brought it back for this season, I would not have been bothered.

That being said, stopping the playing of it due to Ricketts’ complaints would have been problematic. The players have made clear that this is a practice they want to continue, and that’s enough reason to follow through. 

More recently, Rainelle Jones and other members of the Maryland volleyball team kneeled during the national anthem prior to a matchup against Nebraska. They were verbally harassed by some fans, one reportedly saying, “Stand up you piece of trash.” 

This isn’t very surprising for Nebraska, although it’s still jarring and disgusting to see. The Huskers have seemed to take proper disciplinary action, with Jones saying she was told the fan was kicked out and banned. 

However, the public statements from the program have mostly fallen flat. Volleyball coach John Cook, athletic director Trev Alberts and UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green all made an official statement, but to me, they’re fairly problematic. Here are a few excerpts.

“I just don’t think that’s our fan’s place to say things during a match,” Cook said. “It’s putting judgement on the other team and this is a volleyball match.”

“I am disappointed that some of our fans would react that way and apologize to the Maryland volleyball program,” Alberts said. “Our athletic events at Nebraska should always be a place where people can come together to enjoy great competition in a respectful environment.”

“People are free to believe whatever they want,” Green wrote. “But Nebraska is known for the respect we show to visiting teams and their student-athletes, and I would ask our fans to continue to display that respect.”

These statements are all fine, but all lack something — specificity. Cook’s segment is grabbed from a longer quote in which he explains what happens, but as for the other two, you would have next to no idea what happened if you didn’t already have the context.

What these statements do is make the situation purely about sportsmanship. Sure, Nebraska fans shouldn’t be harassing the opponent in any situation. That’s a level of condemnation that even Ricketts matched

What Nebraska’s leaders did in this situation was take no issue with the content of what was being said, just that something rude was said to an opponent. 

Specificity here is important because this issue is far bigger than sportsmanship. Jones is taking a stance on racial justice — an issue the University of Nebraska has continuously acknowledged as being important — but there was a reluctance to condemn the content of the fan’s insult. 

It confuses me that most leaders at Nebraska weren’t able to give a stronger statement. Husker players and coaches have been mostly supportive of any player who decides to make a stand on their own side. Volleyball assistant coach Jaylen Reyes was even able to go a step further and say he didn’t “agree at all about what was said.” 

While yes, it seemed to be just a few individuals in the stands shouting these things, it must be looked at why the Devaney Center and other sporting venues are places where fans can feel comfortable expressing such hateful views. 

The idea that taking a knee for racial justice during the anthem is disrespectful and an action worthy of being called “trash” should be one that Nebraska can stand against regardless of the place and time. 

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