For you Grrls who follow college football, you may be aware of last weekend’s unexpected political statement at the University of Virginia vs. William and Mary game. But for you Grrls like me, who only watch sports under peer pressure or to support a loved one, maybe you missed the spectacle.
W&M players entered the misty UVa stadium, their few (but dedicated!) fans cheered them on despite the drizzling rain. Onlookers suspected the players would disperse to the sidelines, but instead the players lined up and linked arms to show off undershirts peeking from their jerseys stating:
“UNITED WE STAND
DIVIDED WE FALL.”
The statement referred to the KKK and neo-Nazi riots in Charlottesville three weeks earlier where a white nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters leaving one dead and 19 injured.
The Tribe released this statement: “The expression represents our desire to make a positive statement about our shared beliefs in cultivating a society based on respect for people of all ethnicities, cultures and backgrounds and one that embraces unity, civility and loving one another despite our differences.”
But can something as passive as “loving one another despite our differences” be deemed political? The ill-defined statement leaves too much to interpretation. Does the Tribe mean we should accept differences as long as they do not include beliefs that rob the humanity of others? Or is the Tribe saying we should join hands with oppressors and chalk the violence up to ideological differences?
The ambiguity of the statement allows both sides of the political spectrum (from alt-right to “alt-left”) to support the expression of unity. Neither side can morally disagree with “cultivating a society based on respect.” The Tribe’s statement and t-shirts showed solidarity with the City of Charlottesville, but did not condemn the violence caused by white supremacists. While this call for unity is appreciated and necessary, it excuses Tribe football from taking an explicit stance against the KKK, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis. Without a clear message, how are we supposed to know what the Tribe stands for?
Political statements are not foreign to the sports world. In 2016, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Kaepernick told NFL Media, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” His teammate Eric Reid later joined the movement, along with Seahawks player Jeremy Lane.
NCAA players are not given an equal amount of freedom to make political plays on the field. While NFL players represent themselves as a brand and get traded to different teams, NCAA players are bound to their colleges — especially if they are awarded athletic scholarships. A single NFL player has the autonomy to take an individual political stance. NCAA players represent not only themselves, but their teammates, coaches, and colleges as a whole.
With about 100 players on the team, Tribe football represents a diverse set of political ideals. The players expressed a desire to stand with Charlottesville, though they themselves did not create the shirts nor did they write the statement. It is up to the coaches to generate statements such as these, and to ensure that the Tribe will receive no backlash. The vague, but positive, statement is a harmless way to show the Tribe cares about community (even UVa’s).
The game ended with a 10-28 loss for the Tribe. Their expression of solidarity echoes UVa’s #HoosTogether campaign, “an effort to unite our community in support of love, diversity and inclusion.” Playing it safe seems to be the political game plan for both of these Virginia state schools.