The nation is divided about athletes’ game time protests against racial injustice, but Drew Hyland likes what he’s seeing on the field.

“I’m glad that the players are speaking up on issues other than sports,” said Hyland, a visiting professor in the Philosophy Department. “People of all ages look up to professional athletes and listen to what they have to say.

“The point is, people have listened to generals, singers and other entertainers for years. Why should athletes be any different?”

Hyland’s comments came during a discussion of “On Our Knees: Sport, Race, and America,” presented by Suffolk’s Public Policy and Practice HUB as part of its “Before and After Charlottesville: Inclusion and Freedom in Dialogue” series.

The public discussion looked at the issues and controversies surrounding the recent phenomenon of athletes “taking the knee” during the national anthem as a protest against police violence against blacks.

A Suffolk University Political Research Center nationwide poll from October found that 51 percent of registered voters believe that it is appropriate for NFL players to take the knee as a protest, while 42 percent said it is not appropriate.

A historic dearth of activism

Hyland discussed the history of athletes and activism.

“Given their public visibility and access to media attention, I think it’s fair to say that athletes have not been particularly active in civil rights activities,” he said. “This is all the more strange given that so many African Americans are successful professional athletes.”

Hyland believes that many fans prefer it that way.

Sports as entertainment

“Sports games, after all, are entertainment,” he said. “The fans go to games to have a good time, not to think about the problems the country has. Fans would just as soon have their athletes shut up and play.”

Hyland went on to discuss how times are changing, noting the situation of Colin Kaepernick, who, as quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, knelt down on his knee during the playing of the national anthem during a 2016 NFL pre-season game.

“He explicitly claimed thereafter that he was doing so as a protest against police violence against minorities and more generally against the oppression that he saw minorities as suffering in America,” said Hyland.

Trump’s influence

Other NFL players subsequently followed Kaepernick’s lead. Yet the talented player, now a free agent, has not been picked up by any team.

Soon after the 2017 NFL season began, President Donald Trump declared that taking a knee was an insult to the anthem, the flag, the military, and the country.

“Therein lies the controversy as it stands today,” said Hyland. “Was Kaepernick’s and his compatriots’ taking of the knee a legitimate act of civil protest against police violence against minorities, as they repeatedly claim, or was it an insult to the anthem, flag, the military, and the country?”

Students respond

Norma Buyund, Class of 2018, pictured above, was encouraged to see the audience engage in the discussion with Hyland.

“This topic extends well beyond sports, to areas such as race and color, and it was encouraging to see people speak up and voice their opinions,” said Buyund, a Politics, Philosophy, and Economics major. “It’s time now for this discussion to happen outside of minority neighborhoods and on a platform involving many different races.”

Keegan Hite, Class of 2020, said that the discussion illustrated the interconnectedness of American political and cultural life.

“It also raised questions about how we view Colin Kaepernick as the agent of change and what his role is in representing minority communities in the United States.”

Hyland is an emeritus professor at Trinity College. One of his areas of expertise is the philosophy of sport, including the role of race in sport. He is the author of numerous articles and a number of books, including Philosophy of Sport and The Question of Play.