I can tell you as a long time student of Nebraska politics and football that it is a rare occasion when the two intersect. The most prominent mix of the two probably occurred when Richard Nixon visited the UNL campus in January 1971 to honor the Huskers for their first football national championship. Nixon’s recognition of the national championship was genuine since – like millions of other Americans – Nixon was a huge football fan. Nevertheless, Nixon’s visit to UNL did have a political purpose. He wanted to appear on a college campus during the Vietnam War without provoking a mass demonstration. As it turned out, aside from a couple of hecklers, Nixon received a warm welcome during this visit to Lincoln.
The most recent (and controversial) interaction between Nebraska politics and football occurred last week when three Nebraska football players knelt on the sidelines before the Northwestern game during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. This gesture was cleared with Coach Mike Riley and the team before the game. Both the coaches and the players approved of this demonstration. “Michael approached me, wanted to talk to the team,” Riley said. “So we set a time this morning after one of our walkthroughs. He explained to the team. I didn’t know anybody else was going to do it, but that’s OK. This is obviously a choice that they have made for personal reasons. That’s the beautiful thing about the United States, that they can do that.”
At a subsequent press conference, Husker linebacker Michael Rose Ivey made an eloquent statement explaining what he and his two team mates were doing: “”As everyone is aware, this past Saturday before the game against Northwestern, DaiShon Neal, Mohamed Berry and myself kneeled in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and many other athletes across the country — those professional and unprofessional who are standing together to use their various platforms to bring awareness about police brutality and the recent deaths of black men and women at the hands of police officers. While the anthem played, I prayed along with DaiShon and Mohamed. We asked God to watch over us and protect us, and to look down on this country with grace and mercy and to look down on all of us with grace and mercy.”
Rose-Ivey went on to quote from the Bible and cited the likes of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi to explain their exercise of free speech. The Nebraska student athlete went on to say: “To make it clear, I am not anti-police, anti-military, nor anti-American. I love my country deeply and appreciate the freedoms it professes to afford me. I have traveled outside of the United States. I have seen how people live in other countries with my own eyes. And though I’ve endured hardships as a kid and didn’t grow up with the whole world in the palm of my hands, as a conscious being, I am able to recognize that there are people out there who are in a much worse position than I am.”
The reaction from the Nebraska GOP political establishment was swift, harsh and out of touch. Governor Pete Ricketts said that the actions of Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal and Mohamed Barry were “disgraceful and disrespectful” to veterans who had died in combat. The Governor asserted that perhaps these three players could have found a different way to protest such as raising their fists. In response, Rose-Ivey requested a meeting with Ricketts and the Governor has agreed to meet with him later this month. One can only hope that it will be a productive meeting where some common ground can be found.
Ricketts’ criticism of the three student-athletes is deeply hypocritical in light of his support for Donald Trump. (Ricketts has endorsed Trump and his family has contributed $1 million to the orange hued mogul’s campaign.) This is because Trump has trashed and demonized veterans during his Presidential campaign. Last year, Trump – who dodged the draft during the Vietnam War – alleged that John McCain isn’t a war hero because he got shot down by enemy fire while carrying out a dangerous mission. Moreover, Trump spent several days last summer trashing a Gold Star family who criticized him at the Democratic Convention. If Ricketts is so concerned about veterans, why hasn’t he spoken out against Trump? He won’t say.
UNL Regent Hal Daub’s remarks were even worse than those from Ricketts. Daub drew national attention (for all of the wrong reasons) when he said the following: “They don’t have to play football for the university either. They know better, and they had better be kicked off the team.” Daub later tried to deny he made these inflammatory remarks but the Lincoln Journal Star reporter who recorded them stood steadfastly by his story and Daub’s quotes. It should be noted that Daub also supports Mr. Trump for President.
The responses of Ricketts and Daub touched off a firestorm of criticism. There was even genuine concern that their actions may hurt recruiting. Due to our sparse population, Nebraska coaches are required to recruit on a national basis. Over the years, Nebraska has recruited numerous African-American student athletes from urban areas. Ricketts and Daub’s foolish remarks could send out the unfortunate message that Nebraska student athletes are actively discouraged from speaking out on important issues. As Coach Riley said, the team is a “melting pot” and that is a “beautiful thing.” We don’t need two politicians to destroy the one thing that unifies the state by pandering to the most extreme elements of the Nebraska GOP.
Ricketts and Daub didn’t only jeopardize the future of the football team, they also threatened the Constitutional rights of our student athletes. The demonstration by Rose-Ivey, Neal and Berry is clearly protected speech under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If they had been kicked off the team in retaliation, UNL would have been sued and would have lost the case. Moreover, the reputation of the state and UNL would have been forever tarnished by two petty, pandering politicians. It is the height of irony to hear politicians who use their constitutional rights to advocate for offensive policies that violate others’ civil rights and human dignity suddenly get on their soap box and try to silence citizens who choose to exercise their rights.
Conservative Republicans always claim to have some kind of monopoly on their support of the Constitution. Ricketts and Daub demonstrated that this is completely bogus. This situation clearly proves that right wingers have a very limited view of the Constitution. They believe it is a partisan document that only protects gun owners and the wealthy. Ricketts and Daub made fools out of themselves when three African-American student athletes made a statement against police brutality. We need to get out the message that it is the Democratic Party that is the party of the Constitution. We believe in giving meaning to the entire document – not just the parts that further a narrow, partisan agenda.
Nebraska has been poorly served by the likes of Ricketts and Daub. The GOP has been in power for too long. Nebraska Republicans have grown arrogant and complacent. We must elect more Democrats to the legislature this fall to act as a check and balance to the likes of Ricketts and his allies. Ricketts wants to turn Nebraska into a combination of Kansas and Washington, D.C. His policies would give us the reckless fiscal policies of the Sunflower state and the poisonous gridlock of Washington, D.C. He must be defeated. Let’s get it done!