The basketball team at a small southwest Virginia college wanted to make a statement against racial injustice in the United States. But when players at the NAIA’s Bluefield College opted to kneel during pregame renditions of the national anthem, and the display attracted attention from local and social media, the school president punished the team amid a postseason push.

As his actions draw attention, the players plan to continue to push their message — albeit more subtly.

“It’s bigger than us, and we don’t want to have the season taken away from us,” forward Stanley Christian told ESPN. “We feel like we’re in a great position to bring this school a title. So we’ll stay in the locker room during the national anthem. They don’t want any more backlash, and we would definitely take a knee during the anthem.”

Christian had been considering some form of peaceful protest dating back to last season, but last month’s Capitol insurrection spurred him and his teammates to act. Their protest attracted local and social media attention, leading David Olive, the college’s president, to suspend the team.

Bluefield College football player Jewels Gray, who told ESPN that he is close with members of the basketball team, said Olive told players “we can kneel and they’d support and be behind us, 100 percent,” before this season.

Players started kneeling late last month. One video shows them kneeling with their heads bowed while wearing black shirts that read “Unity” on the back.

The display was featured during a local news broadcast on Jan. 30. Olive said in a statement that he met with Bluefield Athletic Director Tonia Walker and men’s basketball coach Richard Morgan two days later, telling Morgan “kneeling during the anthem would not be allowed going forward,” and telling Walker “to communicate this prohibition to all the head coaches so that similar incidents would not occur with other teams.”

“The basis for my decision stemmed from my own awareness of how kneeling is perceived by some in our country, and I 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,” Olive said in the statement. “As I conveyed this to VP Walker and Coach Morgan, I denoted that anytime a student athlete puts on a jersey that says ‘Bluefield College’ on it, the message is no longer just the student athlete’s message but that it becomes the message of Bluefield College. Pointing to the already fractured and divided nature of our country, I did not want Bluefield College contributing to the further divide; rather, I wanted the College to bring people together in a united effort to address issues of racial injustice.”

Players ignored Olive’s edict, and knelt again before a Feb. 2 game against Truett McConnell. They remained in the locker room during the anthem before the next two games Feb. 4 and Feb. 6. Between those contests, Olive met with players to reiterate his stance and argued that the players’ message was not being heard. Olive said he and Morgan offered alternatives, including players taking a knee at tip-off.

“In that meeting we had with him, he wasn’t really hearing us out at all. We tried to tell him our side of the story, and it was like we were talking to a wall,” Christian told ESPN. “He showed us he didn’t care in the meeting, so we were going to stand up for what we believed in. They wanted us to do it their way so they didn’t have to deal with media or people outside Bluefield.”

Players knelt again before a home game Tuesday against Tennessee Wesleyan, prompting Olive to issue a one-game suspension to each player on the team, forcing it to forfeit Thursday’s game at Reinhardt.

Bluefield (7-11) sits 10th in the NAIA’s Appalachian Athletic Conference. The forfeit came with two games remaining and the team in a fight to earn a spot in this month’s conference tournament — a competition reserved for the top eight teams in the league.

Players returned to practice Friday. They’ll face Milligan on Monday.

Off the court, Olive’s decision galvanized players from the football, basketball and women's soccer teams to “join a video call to discuss their options and vent frustrations over the sense that their First Amendment rights had been violated,” according to ESPN.

Gray staged a walkout during football practice in support of Bluefield’s basketball players — his team is preparing for the second game of its season, delayed until spring because of the coronavirus.

The Virginia NAACP released a statement Thursday, saying it is “extremely concerned about the recent actions of Bluefield College that appear to suppress the nonviolent, silent protests of its student-athletes” and that it is “actively monitoring the situation.”

In the statement, Olive said Zoom meetings with student athletes and athletics personnel are planned for Sunday.