Football players shed light on race issues, challenge NCAA uniform rules

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Photo by Matt Hembree (C’20)

By Lam Ho and Fleming Smith

Executive Staff

During the 2016 football season, Ronald Hayes (C’19) and Kirk Murphy (C’17) used their influence on the field to promote social change by printing shirts advocating the messages of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, in the last few games of the season, they received criticism as a result: the first of these incidents took place when Coach Laurendine informed the football team after a Sunday practice that he received an email from National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) detailing rules against donning their uniforms with any accompanying lettering.

To address the disagreement that ensued, Hayes and Murphy were featured in a coffee and conversation event at the Community Engagement House (CoHo) on Monday, October 24, where they discussed their concerns and shared three moments in the 2016 season that profoundly shaped their experiences as black athletes.

At this event, Hayes began the story with saying, “For those of you who are unaware of what we’re doing, Kirk had the idea of getting a shirt made that said ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the back of it that hung out underneath his pads on the back, and I told him, ‘I’m not going to let you go through that alone. I’m not going to let you make that stand by yourself.’”

In solidarity, Hayes made a shirt that said “free us” on the front and “free me” on the back. He added, “[Murphy] wore his [during warm-ups]. Before that last game, on Sunday practice, the coach made an announcement that he received an email from the NCAA saying that we could not wear shirts that hang underneath our pads.”

After Murphy exited the field because of his reaction to Laurendine’s announcement, Hayes approached the coach to ask if that was an “official rule.” Hayes explained, “As soon as we dismissed, I went up to Coach and I asked, ‘Is this an email that has been sent out to all coaches in the NCAA, or is this even a legitimate rule?’ And he couldn’t tell me, and he said he’d be glad to check on that for me. At that time I asked him if he could send me the email. He made sure to tell me, ‘This is not me doing this, this is just a message I received. I don’t have a problem with the shirts, but for the sake of the matter, just tuck in the shirts. It’s not that big of a deal.’ And after I heard him say that, I just lost it. For him to say that, it shows that he doesn’t get it.” At the CoHo event, Hayes also said, “I guess it’s not so much the fact that we couldn’t have our shirts hanging out, but it’s the fact that, to our notice [from the coach], that next week Berry received the same email, but I’ve heard nothing else about it.”

In response to the The Sewanee Purple’s question, “Did you receive an email from the NCAA?” Laurendine responded, “That is incorrect.” He then specified that he found the rule online.

Berry College football coaches declined to comment.

Explaining his actions that day, Laurendine said, “First and foremost, I have never, ever told anyone on the football team that they can’t protest for anything. The situation here is uniform detail. NCAA doesn’t allow them to promote anything outside of their school team.”

In a document called “Football Uniform FAQ” published by the NCAA on August 29, 2016, the organization lists the following questions: “Are words allowed on wristbands and other attachments? What about messaging for causes, organizations, etc.?” The answer states the following: “The rules do not specifically address words or symbols that reference charitable causes, political candidates or political issues, social media, religious or club affiliation, etc.”

The dispute of this NCAA guideline did not stop on Sewanee’s campus. During the Tigers’ game at Berry, Murphy claims that a referee told him he could not play with the letters on his shirt hanging below the jersey. At the coffee and conversation event, Murphy clarified: “When [the referee] threw the flag, coach thought it was on me, but it wasn’t. The referee walked up to me and said, ‘Tuck in your shirt.’ I said, ‘What about my fellow opponent right here in front of my face?’”

In a separate interview, Hayes said, “At the time at the Berry game when Kirk was addressed for his shirt, I saw three other Berry players with their shirts untucked. I remember [the referee] blew a whistle, stopped the game, and all I could see was Kirk out there throwing his hands up.”

According to Murphy, the referee had said, “I don’t like your letters.”

In the NCAA’s most recent rulebook, the organization states that “if an official discovers illegal equipment, or if a player is not wearing mandatory equipment, the player must leave the game for at least one down and is not allowed to return until the equipment is made legal. The player may be allowed to return without missing a down if the team takes a charged team timeout, but in any event he may not play with illegal equipment or without mandatory equipment” (1-4-8-b).

“We will not comment on the specific situations,” Jackie Hobson, a media and public relations employee with the NCAA, said in response to questions about the rule and its application in these two situations.

In an interview about the altercation, Murphy said, “As I grew as a black student at Sewanee, I looked at [the situation] and said, ‘I can educate these people and channel my anger into something that can change this campus… You have a choice.” Murphy did not remove his jersey and, as a result, was removed from the game. “I sat on the bench… I got back in the game after I tucked my shirt in. I got back in the game and played the rest of the game. It’s still football, and I still want to play. If that means I still have to tuck my shirt at the time, okay, cool. But as soon as the game’s over, I’m going to take my shirt out, and I’m going to approach you. That’s pretty much what happened.”

The Southern Athletic Association hired the referees at this game. When asked about this altercation, a Berry football coach declined to go on the record.

At the end of the game, Murphy and Laurendine discussed the incident. Laurendine apologized to Murphy and “explained where he came from.” Murphy says, “I’ve got a lot of respect for Coach Laurendine and how he approached the situation. He explained where he came from; he didn’t want to offend me in no kind of way and stuff like that. And that’s cool. I really took what he said to heart, and Coach Laurendine is a great guy, but there’s just some things that the white community has to understand.”

Hayes spoke of Laurendine with the same regard, but mentioned that at times Laurendine seemed to draw attention to their race. He said, “There was a time when Coach Laurendine said, ‘Where are my two black backs?’ He was talking about me and Mikey Plancher (C’18). He was saying it in a jokingly way. Immediately, Divine [Maloney] (C’17) and Mikey took offense to it.”

Murphy and Hayes also recounted a moment when a player asked, “Why don’t we go out on the field before the game and hold up our helmets during the national anthem?” According to Murphy, Laurendine replied, “Yeah, of course, as long as we don’t have any Colin Kaepernicks.” When Murphy said he would also kneel for the anthem, the coach did not respond.

A group of students organized protests for football games following the away game at Berry, wearing Black Lives Matter shirts and sitting together in a section of the bleachers. Myranda Gonzalez (C’18), one of the students who organized these protests, says, “When [Kirk and Ron] told those of us who were at the solidarity gathering (in the Quad to honor lives lost to police brutality), we were mad. I thought if they can’t wear the shirts then we will wear it and say it for them. I wasn’t the only one who thought this, and from there, we decided to get as many people as we could to dress in all black and to come early so we could protest the national anthem just like Kaepernick and others have done. We knew that by protesting and taking a stand for the voices that have been silenced, we would get people’s attention and that they would be mad at the fact that we choose to kneel down to the national anthem.” She helped African American Alliance President Joey Adams (C’18) support Murphy and Hayes at games, and this group continues to do so at other sporting events.

In creating the shirts that hung below their jerseys, shedding light on a national controversy—the state of race in politics and, in this case, athletics—Hayes and Murphy challenged the ambiguities of the NCAA rule that restricts jerseys themselves, not the attachments.

“The final line is, the NCAA doesn’t allow college athletics to be used as a platform for any entity. It’s probably a very good rule. They just want everyone to look the same… it’s a team game,” said Laurendine.

CORRECTION (12/12/2016): In a previous form of this article, the president was listed to be Brandon Iracks-Edelin. The correct president of the African American Alliance is Joey Adams (C’18). Myranda Gonzalez’s year was also incorrect, which is supposed to be C’18.

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