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Vol. 58, No. 3 • March 2021 • .pdf version
Most Courageous Bluefield College's story matters
By DAVID HALE
Stanley Christian was scrolling through Twitter in late February when he came across a direct message from a name he didn't recognize. This was dangerous territory for the senior leader of Bluefield College's basketball program. A few weeks earlier, the team earned national headlines for its decision to kneel during the national anthem in defiance of direct orders from the school's president, who ultimately suspended the players and forfeited a game.
Since then, Christian had gotten a mix of support and hate mail. This message, however, was different. It was from a man in Canada who previously had never heard of Bluefield College, but he'd been talking to his daughter about the importance of standing up for what's right, even when it's hard, and came across the story of Bluefield's protest. The pieces clicked. Here was a team without fame or pro prospects, willing to put its season on the line to speak up for what's right, he said.
"We were going to stand up for what we believed in," he said. "The (school) wanted us to do it their way so they didn't have to deal with media or people outside Bluefield. … The suspension made it go across the country."
For speaking its truth to power, the USBWA named the Bluefield College basketball team this year's winners of the Perry Wallace Most Courageous Award.
Last summer, Christian and his teammates had talked about ways to shed light on racial injustice, but it was only after the Capitol riots on Jan. 6 that the team agreed the timing was right. At first, no one seemed to notice. Then came a local news report, and that's when the school's president, Dr. David Olive, got involved.
Olive told the team that he "did not think a number of our alumni, friends, and donors of the College would view the act of kneeling during the anthem in a positive way" and asked the team to find an alternative. For a few games, the players remained in the locker room for the anthem, but after another meeting with administration that Christian characterized as dismissive, the team again knelt before Bluefield's Feb. 8 game.
That was the final straw for Olive, who suspended the entire team, forcing Bluefield to forfeit its Feb. 11 contest, a dagger in its hopes for a postseason berth.
On campus, a football player staged a solitary walkout during practice in support of the basketball team, while another, military veteran Collin O'Donnell, issued a statement approving of the protests. At the team's football game that Saturday, several students knelt for the national anthem, too, and in the days that followed, students and alumni signed a letter to the president chastising his decision. The campus even held a protest last month.
"People are saying they're with us, and they want to be more involved," Christian said. "It's been good to get this type of love and support."
Christian got calls and texts from family members that he hadn't heard from in years, thanking him for standing his ground. On social media, players from different sports at all levels chimed in with their own words of encouragement.
Since the suspension, Bluefield has remained in the locker room during the anthem, but it has forced additional discussions with the president and is set to meet with the college's Board of Trustees in March. More importantly, Christian said, thousands of people have witnessed the team's courage and heard their message of racial justice.
"(The school) told us our rights are limited when we put Bluefield across our chests," Christian said. "That's not right. When that jersey comes off us, we're still Black in America, and I have to face that reality."
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