If you want to be mad about Tennessee women’s basketball players taking a pre-game knee during the national anthem a couple of weeks ago, that’s your business. But please don’t bolster your position by pretending to channel Pat Summitt.
The Jan. 7 photo of the majority of the players kneeling before the Arkansas game provoked some serious disagreements among the fan base, many of whom were irate over what they deemed a grievous act of disrespect. Some went so far as to declare that racism is no longer an issue worth discussing.
Senior Rennia Davis disagrees. After the game, the All-SEC forward told reporters that the decision to kneel was an “in the moment” reaction to the violent mob scene in Washington, D.C., the day before. She said the mixed reaction of the fans was a needed dose of reality:
“We were able to see who some of our real fans were today, and who weren’t. So, it was great to see who was really on our side and have our backs outside of basketball and as actual people.”
Davis and her teammates were particularly upset about a viral video of a couple of burly white guys re-enacting the killing of George Floyd, whose death sparked national unrest. The video was staged on the steps of a downtown D.C. church beneath a display of Black Lives Matter banners. The “victim” threw himself down on the steps while a guy in a red MAGA hat knelt over him pretending to press a knee into his throat. See it here.
Davis posted the video on her Twitter feed with this comment:
“Is death a joke to y’all?? I am seriously confused and sickened by this display of blatant disrespect to a man who lost his life UNWILLINGLY.”
Apparently, some fans have forgotten that toward the end of her career, Summitt was herding her team back into the locker-room until after the national anthem was done. It wasn’t a political decision – she just hated distractions.
I doubt that Pat would have gotten down on the floor with the team – her arthritic knees wouldn’t have allowed it. But she would have respected the players’ deeply held views and was not only unafraid of change. She was a change agent, as she demonstrated over and over again, beginning with the time she bucked the Tennessee high school coaching establishment and dragged us away from the antiquated six-on-six half-court game, designed to protect girls’ fragile innards from being subjected to running up and down the floor like the boys did. Later, the farm girl from rural Middle Tennessee led the way in recruiting Black players and formed lifelong bonds with them. Still later she was an early supporter of Title IX.
There’s a more practical reason for respecting players’ views, too. Forbidding them from expressing their beliefs would hand rival coaches a powerful recruiting tool.
I asked Maria Cornelius, author of “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” how she thinks Pat would react to this controversial issue:
“I think a lot of fan reaction has been projection – how they would want Pat to react caught up in pitched and superficial fever dreams of Pat somehow becoming a warrior for the flag.
“The reality is Pat Summitt had many more layers than that. She would have listened to her players. She understood that her Black players had been subjected to racism throughout their lives. When Obama was elected the first time, she was asked for her reaction to America’s first Black president and what it meant. She said: ‘Look at my team.’”
And finally, “Pat would have been on the side of social justice – she was on that side her entire life. As far as exactly how she would have responded now, no one can speak for her. And those who think they can need to hush.”
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.