Six days after six members of the University of Arkansas women’s basketball team knelt in protest during the national anthem, college officials on Wednesday announced “Project Unify,” a “community engagement program” designed to address concerns that fueled the protest.
The move, which will see the players no longer kneel during the anthem, could also quell backlash against the team and the university that included one Arkansas senator threatening to put a hold on the university’s budget.
On Nov. 3, six Razorbacks, all of them African-American, knelt during the national anthem to protest police shootings of African-Americans and other minorities. The players, though not necessarily the protest, were later supported by Coach Jimmy Dykes and Athletic Director Jeff Long.
According to the statement from the UA Athletic Department, Project Unify “will engage members of the community and law enforcement, to strengthen mutual trust, respect and understanding.” Details of the program have yet to be outlined, with program development and implementation to be coordinated by “campus leadership.”
Team member Jordan Danberry said the project meets their goal of raising awareness.
“As I stated last week, we took a knee to bring awareness to the social injustice that we recognize in our society,” Danberry noted in the UA statement. “It was not our intention to disrespect the flag or the military. We have heard from many of our fans and we wanted to repeat that we have great respect for our military and our veterans who have served our country.”
Team member Jailyn Mason said the team has in the past few days “learned of how local police officers are reaching out to community youth to engage them in a discussion about the importance of forming strong bonds between law enforcement and residents in the neighborhoods.”
“My teammates and I will utilize the resources available to all students at the University of Arkansas and within our community to create a set of key topics that will initiate discussions to enhance understanding between the different members of our community,” Mason said in the statement. “Topics may range from police policies to youth programming. Ultimately, we hope these discussions lead to a community event and, hopefully, change in our society.”
Long said the university will support what he said will be a “campus wide initiative.”
“University campuses are places of learning where differences of opinion are not only commonplace but important to the concept of higher learning. Within this setting, members of our women’s basketball team shared their perspectives based on their own experiences and raised awareness of an issue close to their hearts. I am pleased that our student-athletes will honor our country by standing during the national anthem and I offer my unwavering support for Project Unify and will work to assist them in this campus wide initiative,” he said.
LEGISLATIVE REACTION TO KNEELING
Three of Arkansas’ four African-American female legislators on Nov. 4 gathered at the State Capitol in Little Rock to express support for the six Razorback women’s basketball players who knelt.
Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, compared the women’s actions to nonviolent protests by Dr. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, saying, “These kinds of actions are in line with the kinds of protests that Dr. King waged, and during that time, there were plenty of people who maybe felt that Dr. King was ungrateful. But he wasn’t ungrateful. He was a patriot, and he was a public servant and demonstrated the kind of character and contribution to this nation that now everybody holds high.”
But Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, was not happy with the protest. On Nov. 6 he said he would place a hold on the University of Arkansas’ budget to be considered in next year’s legislative session. He also said he planned to introduce an amendment that would cut funding to the university by the amount spent on the women’s basketball team.
“I’m not using coercion to try to keep them from kneeling,” Clark told Talk Business & Politics. “I am using the budget process to get the attention of Jeff Long and the chancellor and (Coach) Dykes, to get their attention and whoever else is involved, that if they had anything to do with this, and I believe they did.”