Reactions to Kentucky basketball’s kneeling statement highlight a double standard

Members of Kentucky’s men’s basketball team kneel during the national anthem on Saturday at Florida. 

Sarah Michels

The “right to protest” clause of the Constitution has received much national attention in the past few years. From Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling to BLM protests to gatherings calling for schools and businesses to reopen during COVID to Trump rallies chanting for Congress to “stop the count,” it’s been a busy decade for the First Amendment.  

Across the United States, opposing sides have used this Constitutional tool to speak their minds and express their beliefs. The problem is, some have used the right to protest as a weapon, a double-edged sword; if a person is exercising their right to protest, it is legal, acceptable and even encouraged, but if the opposing side is exercising their equal right to protest, they should be punished for their actions. 

Last Saturday, the Kentucky men’s basketball team knelt during the national anthem at Florida. In their previous games of the season, the team remained in the locker room during the anthem. Several players’ made statements about their protest.  

“This is a great country but we feel like everybody, like minorities and stuff, don’t have equal rights as everybody else, so that’s what we’re protesting,” freshman Isaiah Jackson said. “That’s why we kneeled. That’s what a peaceful protest is.” 

Sophomore Keion Brooks said that the team knelt not only because of racial inequalities that team members have felt, but also because of the violence at the Capitol. 

There was a quick and strong response from viewers, notably John Root and Jamie Mosley, Laurel County’s sheriff and jailer, who organized a virtual “UK Team apparel burning party” on Sunday.

Root’s Facebook post expressing his loss of respect for the Kentucky basketball team after the kneeling statement received over a thousand likes, 831 comments and 371 shares as of Monday. 

“The UK apparel and memorabilia is gone tomorrow and until we get a real man to lead the cats and a real team you will not see me back in no UK junk and if you do just come right up and hit me square in the mouth!!!!,” Root wrote. 

Most of the comments applauded Root, with many sharing that they also boycotted UK basketball after Calipari took the BLM “side” a few months ago. 

Sheriff Root also posted a video of the burning event on Facebook, which has now been made private. Matt Jones, Kentucky Sports Radio host, captured a section of the video showing Root and Mosley expressing their “disgust” toward the athletes who “disrespected our flag and our national anthem.” As he threw a Final Four shirt into the fire, Root said, “this is what I think about the program Coach, until you can get these guys under control and lead by example.” 

The camera then turned to Mosley, who also burned a shirt. Mosley told viewers that some commenters were concerned about the burning since people are in need of clothing, so they decided to offer approximately 100 “Back the Badge” T-shirts—first come, first serve—in exchange for burned UK apparel. 

“If you feel the same way we do and you’ve got some shirts you no longer want, bring those to the jail tomorrow,” Mosley said. 

Buck Meredith, Clarkson County’s chief of police, also announced he will boycott the team after Saturday’s statement. 

“That prick (Calipari) slapped every Kentucky military veteran and the family of every military veteran in the face,” Meredith said. 

He added that he would be calling Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart on Monday and encouraged others to follow. 

Most recently, Knox County Judge Executive Mike Mitchell drafted a resolution in the Knox Fiscal Court calling for state leaders like Gov. Andy Beshear to reallocate tax funding that goes to the University of Kentucky to other institutions and services due to the “disgrace” of the team’s statement. The court will vote on the resolution Jan. 27. 

This is it—the double-edged sword. 

People can’t simultaneously exercise their right to protest while complaining that others shouldn’t be allowed to exercise their right to protest. That’s called hypocrisy.  

Disagreement is allowed and is inevitable. People can argue all day about why they think the UK players should have stood for the anthem or why they think state authority figures like sheriffs and law enforcement should support BLM or not burn UK apparel. 

What can’t happen is one side telling the other side they don’t get the same right to protest because they disagree with what their protest is about. The First Amendment isn’t exclusive to one political ideology. The right to protest applies to everyone, no matter which “side” they are on, no matter how abhorrent one may find their beliefs. 

Kentucky athletes have every right to kneel for the anthem; they are allowed to use their platform for something besides basketball. On the other hand, the sheriff and jailer, and anyone else unhappy with the team’s statement, have every right to burn UK apparel in protest of the basketball players’ actions.

But calling Barnhart to punish the team or threatening to take away funding from the University of Kentucky because they dared to exercise their Constitutional right goes too far. Retaliating against a team of mostly Black athletes for speaking out about an integral part of their identity and experience as racial minorities is the antithesis of the First Amendment.  

Don’t expect others to respect your Constitutional rights if you don’t respect theirs.