‘It Empowers Me to Do the Same’: Cornell Football Reflects on NFL Protests

Like millions of football fans, Cornell football head coach David Archer ’05 watches hours of the sport on Sundays. But for him, the game on the television is almost exclusively tape from team’s matchup the previous day.

Sunday, Sept. 24, was different.

At a rally in Alabama two days before, President Donald Trump called on NFL owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field right now” in regards to players who kneel during the national anthem — a movement started by ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who said he wanted to draw attention to racial inequality and police brutality in the U.S.

In response, at least some members of nearly all 30 NFL teams knelt during the national anthem the following weekend of play, capturing the attention of Archer, who usually spends the weekend obsessing over his team’s play.

Archer said that his Sept. 24, unlike most, was spent paying more attention to the NFL games because of the mass protests. “This one is hard not to see,” he said.

“As much as you want to say we don’t do politics, it’s hard to not have something like that bleed over,” he said.

And when hundreds of Cornell faculty, staff and students knelt last week in support of Kaepernick and against national and local racism, Archer and several football players took a knee as well to show their solidarity.

For several players on the team, the recent protests, along with the backlash, hits home hard. Even though the vast majority of Cornell football players never play after college, professional football players are their role models, as they have been for many players since youth.

“I see myself in all of these African American athletes that are speaking up,” sophomore safety Malik Leary told The Sun in an interview during the Arts Quad demonstration. “I find a little bit of me in each and every one of them. With them doing that, I feel like it empowers me to do the same.”

The NFL players who are taking part in the protests “are speaking for us, so you have to feel honored that they are doing something for you,” added sophomore linebacker Mo Bradford. “They are fighting for your freedoms and your rights.”

Cornell football players say that since Trump was elected, they discuss politics almost as frequently as things like offensive and defensive schemes.

But if there are players who want to stage their own demonstration, they may find it to be a difficult task: At home games in Schoellkopf, both teams take the field only after the national anthem is played. That tradition was on display on Saturday, when members of the Big Red Marching Band took a knee while their colleagues played the anthem and both the Cornell and Colgate teams remained in the locker rooms.

Instead, players look to elevate the dialogue amongst themselves, knowing that the responsibility that comes with being an Ivy League athlete involves more than just grinding in the weight room and taking the field once a week.

“Obviously, you’re at an Ivy League institution, so you’re with students who are very intelligent and ready to talk about things at a high level,” said senior wide receiver Demetrius Daltirus.

“The openness to talk about things is always there on our team,” he continued. “The openness to just express what you feel and be heard is great.”

Daltirus added that more could be done, and that, with issues as complex and difficult as police brutality in America, there is “so much to talk about and so much” on which to educate others.

While some contemplate what they can do to join the stands professional athletes are taking, other players are just trying to focus on what they can control, like the Red’s upcoming game.

“I don’t really try to pay attention to that stuff,” senior captain and linebacker Kurt Frimel, who is also a member of Cornell’s ROTC program, said when asked about the NFL protests. “I just try to focus on what I can control and what I’m doing right now. That kind of stuff is way out of my line of sight. I kind of let it happen out there.”

Cornell football players hail from around the country, from Florida to Washington. Differences in opinions are seemingly inevitable, but players say putting on the same jersey every gameday dissolves many of their disagreements.

“You forget all of that when you are playing on a team,” Daltirus said. “That’s the power of sports. You have such diverse players [and] everyone has to come together for one common goal at some point.”

“When it’s 11 guys on the field trying to come at your head,” Leary said, “brothers become brothers really fast.”

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