At the women’s volleyball home game on Sept. 30 against Widener, most of the team knelt during the national anthem. Those who didn’t kneel held hands with their teammates in an expression of solidarity. Spectators were mostly activists and supporters; many of them were dressed in black and knelt in solidarity.
After the national anthem ended, the group returned to the stands, and president of the Swarthmore African-American Student Society Annie Slappy ’20 spoke words of encouragement.
Slappy, who helped organize the spectators through a Facebook event, said that the players who knelt reached out to SASS for support.
“We couldn’t put it all on our players,” she said. “Any time anybody asks me to come to something like that, I’m going to do it.”
Prior to the team’s home game on Sept. 27 against Franklin and Marshall, the two players who started the protest, Emma Morgan-Bennett ’20 and Lelosa Aimufua ’20, released a statement outlining why they believed it was necessary to take a knee. In the statement, they discussed how Trump’s incendiary comments about NFL players taking a knee feed into persistent racism in the United States and addressed questions of patriotism and peaceful protest.
Aimufua believes that the protest was a way to display her own political positions.
“Being a black woman is something that I think about in every aspect of my life … and so I want to say that the motivation behind this type of protest would be that feeling like my voice has constantly been silenced by American society,” Aimufa said.
Morgan-Bennett outlined four reasons why she decided to take a knee: to support Colin Kaepernick’s original protest against the harm of police brutality on minorities; to condemn Donald Trump’s attacks on athletes of color; to make a gesture that she has faith in the country but wishes for people to recognize the differences of protection for people of color and affluent white male citizens; and finally, to promote solidarity and respect for veterans as she herself comes from a military family.
Both Aimufua and Morgan-Bennett commented that, in addition to wanting to support Kaepernick and denounce Trump, they wanted to start a discussion of the intersection between race and sports, especially at the college level. According to Aimufua, they spent a lot of time considering their statement and met with their teammates, coaches, and the assistant director of athletics.
Morgan-Bennett noted that these meetings contributed to what she views as one of the successes of this protest.
“We began a dialogue and opened a conversation about race, about activism, about the relationships between sports and black bodies on the court and on the field. Our entire team had a very meaningful and introspective conversation about race and racial politics within our sport, within our team and what we want to do with this,” Morgan-Bennett said.
She also hopes that taking a knee could potentially spread to other colleges in the area, sparking a conference-wide protest.
Head Women’s Volleyball coach Harleigh Chwastyk explained that the team has been addressing this issue for over a year by having discussions on diversity and identity in classroom sessions, small groups, and one-on-one conversations. According to Chwastyk, the team also discussed each player’s opinions about Morgan-Bennett and Aimufua’s statement and the choice to kneel or stand for the national anthem.
“We talked about how we felt about it, individual choices, where people stood, where their opinions were in that moment and what they were planning on doing [during the national anthem], and how we could also show solidarity as a team,” Chwastyk said.
Outside of the team, the spectators who took a knee believe that it generated a conversation on campus about racial injustice.
“It’s a good way to call attention to injustices that have been occurring in the world,” said Lali Pizarro ’20, a spectator who participated in the protests. “I do think that it was powerful and it got people on this campus talking.”
Aimufua sees the protest as a success in part because it allowed for people to think about larger issues facing the country.
“What I wanted from the protest was for people to actually reflect on the status of the country and how … to make this country great, because I don’t think it’s great right now, and I think we can do so much better,” Aimufua said.
When asked why they decided to kneel specifically at Swarthmore, Morgan-Bennett said that regardless of the school they attended, they would have made the same choice because they felt compelled to follow their personal morals as black athletes.
“We are people who occupy both spaces on the court and also our own identities as black women … it’s not about an ideal place to protest,” Morgan-Bennett said.
Aimufua agreed with her teammate.
“We live here … it’s an important part of our lives … and our activism is also another important part of our lives,” she said.
Their activism is now closely tied to the fierce national debate about patriotism and first amendment rights in relation to sports.
The debate has gotten more attention lately since late September when, at a rally in Alabama, Donald Trump made a series of inflammatory comments regarding Colin Kaepernick’s taking a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality. After the rally and following Trump’s tweets, the “Take a Knee” protest spread, including more players kneeling, linking arms, or raising fists during the pre-game national anthem.
Referring to these events and an op-ed published by the Daily Gazette this past Thursday, Slappy said that often, people will tell black protesters that they are “ineffectual” or not “protesting in the right way.”
“[It’s a sentiment] that further reinforces the [idea] that black people are only here for sports, and I feel like black people already feel that enough,” Slappy said.
She also commented that society judges black people almost exclusively by how hard they work and their physical characteristics, which is reflected in how black athletes are expected to perform but not have a political voice.
“It’s time for us to understand that black bodies are fetishized, especially in sports. Because the fact that all of these things are happening in the world and football fans don’t feel responsible for it is a problem, especially since there is so much money and influence in athletics,” Slappy said.
Aimufua offered a way to understand her and her teammates’ gesture through established practices in organized sports.
“What kneeling for the anthem means is that in sports, if someone gets injured on the field, you take a knee, regardless if the person is on your team or the opposing team. Taking a knee is a sign of respect and acknowledgement that someone is hurt, and someone is down, and they need you to care, and take a breath, and reflect,” Aimufua said.
Aimufua and Morgan-Bennett’s full statement can be found on page A4 of this issue of the Phoenix, as well online in the Opinions section.
**This article has been edited to reflect that Morgan-Bennett and Aimufa’s statement is also available online.