Taking a stand — on one knee

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece that was highly critical of the University of Kentucky basketball program and college basketball in general. That piece was mostly about the adverse effects on the game of the so-called “one-and-done” phenomenon that has turned the UK and many of the other elite programs into revolving doors for future NBA prospects.

I was criticizing the system and the adults who are in charge of it. This week I’d like to discuss the student-athletes who participate.

I think fans — myself included — sometimes forget that these young men (and women, although we’re talking here about the men’s program) who play a sport are barely out of high school. They were all the stars of their teams throughout their pre-collegiate careers. They have been told they will one day be NBA stars. They have set high goals for themselves and expect to meet them.

Can we fault them if they see their short time playing basketball for the University of Kentucky as little more than a brief interlude on the path to fame and riches? I think not.

It’s not their fault that our culture pays rewards to professional athletes that far exceed their value to society. Like any college student who chooses a career path for the dividends it will pay later, these young men are taking advantage of opportunities placed in front of them. I will not condemn them for that.

This year’s edition of the UK basketball team was widely and publicly maligned for something that had nothing to do with what happens on the basketball court after the ball tips off.

On Saturday, Jan. 9, the players and coaches knelt during the playing of the national anthem before a game at Florida. Judging by the reaction of many Kentuckians, you would have thought they had committed treason.

I can’t understand that mentality. I think the source of this notion has to do with confusing social norms with moral imperatives.

Who decides what is considered proper and respectful and what is not? In my lifetime, I’ve seen these standards evolve. When I was growing up, to wear a hat or cap while eating was considered rude. Remaining seated when a person enters a room was deemed to be disrespectful. Today, those old standards are routinely ignored..

Yet I don’t see anyone writing screeds about the dining room at Golden Corral being full of disrespectful men in caps.

Why do we place such a high emphasis on social norms that are vacuous of inherent meaning?

The phenomenon of athletes kneeling while the national anthem plays has been going on for several years. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously knelt during the anthem before preseason games in 2016. The ensuing backlash likely cost Kaepernick his pro football career.

Various other individual players and teams in several sports have since engaged in similar demonstrations. What do these protests have in common? They are mostly about the treatment of minorities in America, and most of the participants have been black.

Could that have anything to do with the reaction to them?

And what’s so bad about kneeling, anyway? People kneel for royalty as a show of respect. When I watch these players kneel, it does not look like disrespect to me.

When black protestors and their allies take to the streets in protest, they are roundly criticized. When they stage peaceful demonstrations, they are called disrespectful. How can they express their frustration without being castigated for it?

Perhaps if they seek their critics’ approval, they should try breaking into and trashing the U.S. Capitol building.

The truth is, as a middle-class white man, I have no idea what it’s like to feel powerless against institutional forces that marginalize me. Because those forces mostly work in my favor. If I thought I had no other recourse but to stage a protest — peaceful or not — I can’t tell you what I’d do.

But I can tell you what I’m doing now. I’m listening. When people are in pain, we must listen.

I applaud the young men who took a brave stand. I’m proud of them. And I’m listening to them.