With more and more athletes across the country staging protests during the playing of the national anthem, University of Kentucky Coach John Calipari said he counsels caution with his players.
Before protesting, UK players should study the issue “thoroughly,” he said. They should be sure others in the protest are not exploiting their participation for political gain. They should be confident they can make a difference. They should weigh the risks.
Athletes from the professional ranks down to youth leagues have staged protests this year. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked this movement by sitting or kneeling during the playing of the national anthem in order to call attention to what he called racial injustice in the United States.
Calipari said he witnessed several instances of a double-standard based on race while with a former assistant coach at Massachusetts, James “Bruiser” Flint.
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“We’d be in a store and I’d go one way and he’d go the other,” Calipari said. “And there would be two people following him, watching him. No one watched me.”
On another occasion, Calipari said he was in the passenger seat when police stopped a car driven by Flint.
The police wanted to know where Flint was going, what roads he took, what his intentions were. Finally, Calipari said, he spoke to the police officer, “Sir, did we do something here?”
Calipari also described how he and Flint were treated differently while flying in first class.
“They come over to me, ‘Hey, sir, would you like something to drink?’” the UK coach said. “And they go to Bruiser (and) what do they say to him? ‘Can I see your ticket?’
“Can you see his ticket?! You know me. ‘Why didn’t you ask me for my ticket? Why are you asking him for his ticket?’”
Calipari said he uses these stories as a means to enlighten his Kentucky players about the world outside the basketball bubble.
“I tell these guys just because you have a Kentucky uniform on, you don’t feel all this stuff,” he said. “It’s there, OK?”
The 1960s saw athletes active politically: most famously Muhammad Ali refusing induction into the military during the Vietnam War, Tommie Smith and John Carlos holding up fists covered with a black glove during the playing of the national anthem at the 1968 Olympics.
Lexington was not immune. Boston Celtics great Bill Russell refused to play in a game honoring ex-Cats Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey. Russell left town with several black teammates after learning they had been refused service at the restaurant of the Phoenix Hotel.
Calipari said he held team meetings the last two years and led discussions about the increasing number of protests involving athletes.
“If there is something happening in the world or around you that you want to make a statement about … , first of all educate yourself,” he said. “Thoroughly know what they stand for. Do you stand for everything they stand for? If you don’t, don’t get involved. If you do, that’s the first step.”
UK players should be on the lookout for being exploited, Calipari said. “In most cases, they want you in the front of the line. Why do they want you in the front of the line? Because you bring attention to their cause.”
In studying the cause, UK players should be fully aware of the “downside” of participating in a protest, Calipari said.
“If they don’t think it through, and they do something, it could wreck them for the rest of their life,” he said.
Time magazine reported of a fierce backlash when a youth team in Texas staged a protest. “The coaches need to be lynched,” one person wrote on the team’s Facebook page, Time reported. “Kill them all,” wrote another.
Calipari said he asked UK players to meet with him before becoming a protester. He likened such a meeting to when he has a man-to-man discussion with players deciding whether to enter the NBA or return to college. In both cases, the UK coach said he wants assurance that the player is making an intelligent decision.
Calipari put his role in the possible protests by UK players in the context of a coach needing to guide off the court as well as on.
For instance, Calipari said he tells players there are no excuses for hitting a woman.
“If you have an issue with a girl and it’s in front of a judge, men, a 6-7 black man and a 5-2 white girl, you’re going to jail,” Calipari said he tells his players. “You’re not winning. I don’t care what you say.”
Calipari said he also acts as something of an investment counselor.
“I talk to them about money before they leave … ,” he said. “If it’s too good to be true, it is.”
From social protests to domestic violence to money matters, Calipari spent several minutes telling reporters of how he tries to help UK players.
“Then basketball on top of it,” he said. “We better win games.”
About this series
Today’s stories are the first in a series about the 2016-17 University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Starting Tuesday, we’ll publish at least one player profile each day leading up to Big Blue Madness on Oct. 14. Visit Kentucky.com to watch a video interview with each of the players as they are published.