The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Maryland and Iowa players and coaches decided to kneel after the Capitol riots

The players and coaches from Maryland and Iowa take a knee at the start of Thursday's game. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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On Wednesday afternoon, Darryl Morsell received a text message from his mother, who needed to know that her son was safe at school and not a few miles down the road in Washington. Morsell assured his mom that he hadn’t left College Park. As the Maryland men’s basketball team prepared for its game against Iowa, that question prompted Morsell to figure out what was happening in the nation’s capital that sparked his mom’s concern.

Just before practice began, Morsell and his teammates watched the events unfolding at the Capitol on a television in the training room. When both chambers of Congress met Wednesday to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election, supporters of President Trump gathered for a rally. A mob breached the Capitol, spurring chaos and violence. As Morsell watched the protesters climb the walls of the building, he recalled conversations this summer about social injustice in this country.

“As an African American, I feel like if I was in that situation, I would have gotten shot,” Morsell said. “The outcome of what happened there would have been much different. … It’s not like because y’all would have shot us, shoot them. It’s more so like, ‘Can we get treated with the same equality and fairness?’ ”

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For Maryland’s players, the scene at the Capitol revamped discussions about racial inequality. The largely White crowd pushed past barriers and broke windows as some stormed into the Capitol. Activists noticed a stark contrast between the response of law enforcement officers this week and their forceful tactics last summer during protests of police brutality and social injustice. President-elect Joe Biden also denounced the disparate treatment.

In response, the players and coaches from Maryland and Iowa took a knee before tip-off on national television. It was a player-driven decision led by Morsell, who reached out to Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon before the game to ask whether the Hawkeyes wanted to take part.

“We were just enraged,” Morsell said, describing his teammates’ reaction to Wednesday’s events. “We wanted to use our voice and use our platform to voice our anger.”

“It affected a lot of us,” teammate Aaron Wiggins said. “… We talked about it, communicated with some of their guys before the game. And they felt like right before tip, we could all unite and send a message together, put a knee on the ground and show what we stand for.”

Since George Floyd died in police custody in May, athletes have become increasingly comfortable with speaking out against social injustice. Their massive platforms amplify their voices, and they have recognized the change they can spark. With Maryland’s matchup against Iowa tipping off the day after rioters stormed the Capitol, Morsell wanted to do something. After breakfast the morning of the game, Morsell talked with Wiggins about kneeling during the national anthem. Some of Maryland’s players planned to do so.

Coach Mark Turgeon “was in support of me the whole time,” Morsell said. After Morsell reached out to Bohannon, the teams decided to kneel before tip-off rather than during the anthem, with the players, coaches and officials all participating in the unified act.

“It was definitely disturbing and upsetting to see that happen in the city I’m from,” said Iowa’s Luka Garza, who grew up in the D.C. area. “I have friends and family who were protesting all summer, with rubber bullets, tear gas, a whole bunch of stuff. People got hurt. I know people that got hurt. I know people that got arrested. It’s obviously frustrating to see that.”

Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery called the events at the Capitol “reprehensible.” Turgeon said his team talks about the issues, adding that there’s “a lot going on in the world and it’s confusing to our guys.”

Over the summer, Maryland’s players had regular discussions about social injustice, and together the team read Martin Luther King Jr.’s book “Why We Can’t Wait.” The in-depth conversations could last hours, and Wednesday’s scene at the Capitol brought new light to those discussions.

“We always talked about equality throughout society and justice,” Morsell said. “It’s time for more of a change. … We just want to focus on making sure everybody is treated equal and everybody has their certain rights and there is justice within society.”

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WNBA and NBA players have been among the most vocal athletes on social issues. Teams from multiple leagues, beginning with the Milwaukee Bucks refusing to take the court for a playoff game, halted play in August to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis.

Morsell, a senior leader and four-year starter, had never taken such a public stand. But when asked whether the recent surge in athlete activism made him more inclined to speak out, he said: “Personally, no. I’m going to say what I feel, for real. I think it definitely impacts some other people. It allows them to feel more comfortable, to let them know that they’re not alone.”

Morsell didn’t mention the plan to his parents, who said after the game that they were proud of him. Morsell said he doesn’t know whether Maryland players will continue to kneel before future games, and if they do, they want it to remain a joint decision by both teams on the court.

Thursday’s gesture was brief and simple, but the 20 seconds the players and coaches spent on one knee gave them a chance to let their voices extend beyond college basketball.

Maryland junior Eric Ayala, who supported the plan as soon as Morsell mentioned it, called it “one of the most memorable things I’ve been a part of in my basketball career.”