Ameer Abdullah got a glimpse of the controversy during halftime of the Nebraska-Northwestern game. He checked his Twitter feed and saw people in disagreement.
Since then, he’s read the backlash directed at three Huskers who kneeled during the national anthem. He’s exchanged text messages with senior linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, whom he considers a friend. He’s thought long and hard about his relationships in Nebraska and the black-white divide in America.
Abdullah’s heart is heavy, but his mind is pretty clear: If he were still wearing a Husker uniform, he would’ve been right next to Rose-Ivey.
“Most likely, yes, I would’ve kneeled,” Abdullah said.
The Detroit Lions running back, who completed his college career in 2014 as Nebraska’s second all-time leading rusher, shares Rose-Ivey’s views of “the social and racial injustice” that flashes into the news cycle every time an unarmed black man is killed by police. He was “really, really shocked” and “stung” by the reaction in Nebraska. It’s one thing to receive threats and condemnations from “Twitter trolls,” Abdullah said. But from elected officials?
Abdullah, who grew up in Alabama, never encountered direct racism in Lincoln. The fan base always treated him like one of its own. But the past few days, he’s questioned his bonds.
“A lot of people smile at your face, they pat you on the back, but when things go down on the national scale, what are these people saying, how are they acting when they’re home alone?” Abdullah said.
“It’s kinda scary, because you start to think, are my friends who are Caucasian different when they’re at home? I wonder what they’re saying about me when I’m not around them. You start to ponder those thoughts. Am I seen as the friend Ameer or just the Ameer who’s good at football, but when something goes wrong I’m going to name-call him or treat him disrespectfully?”
These are only the latest tough questions Abdullah has wrestled with. Following the Alton Sterling shooting in July, Abdullah had a conversation with a friend in Detroit. What if that was me, he asked. What if I were the one lying on the ground, restrained, before being shot in the chest?
“I can almost guarantee that the response would be different just because of what I do. It would be a bigger problem. ‘Oh, this is terrible, this is unjust.’ Then why is it not unjust when Joe Blow is in the same situation and has the same outcome?
“When is it a problem? Because right now, to a lot of people who aren’t African-American, it doesn’t seem like a problem because they don’t value life the same.”
An athlete’s prominence — football players in particular — is precisely why Abdullah believes that they should speak out. Seize the opportunity, because “this platform is only gonna stand sturdy for so long. You don’t know how long your career will be.”
To those who say that protests should take place in a different venue, Abdullah responds that only protests on a big stage reverberate outside the black community. People sit in front of courthouses for days and never get noticed.
“But when a guy takes a knee for a national anthem who’s the quarterback of a team, then it’s like, ‘Whoa, what’s the issue?’ They didn’t want to look at it before.”
Abdullah, who’s out for the remainder of the season with a foot injury, did not follow Colin Kaepernick’s lead and kneel during the national anthem in Weeks 1 and 2. Kaepernick’s protest, however, inspired Abdullah to plan his own initiatives.
He wants to organize pro athletes in Detroit, including the Pistons and the Tigers, and help bridge the divide between law enforcement and the black community. The stigmas on each side are strong.
“I feel like that’s the first level of things. If we allow the black community to be more familiar with what a policeman does on a day-to-day basis and what they intend to protect and what they are honoring by wearing that badge, that can give them more of a comfort level.
“And on the flip side of that, educating policemen who aren’t as familiar with the black community and black neighborhoods so that they will have a better idea of how black people live and just being more comfortable in situations.”
If an officer hears only about drug dealers and gang members in black neighborhoods, he has one hand on the weapon every time he approaches an incident, Abdullah said. And if a black person thinks that officers are only there to bring him down, he responds to police presence with resentment and combativeness, not compliance.
Abdullah wants to be part of progress. But progress begins with knowledge. When athletes kneel during the anthem, Abdullah said, they’re not protesting the military, they’re protesting what the country has recently tolerated.
And when he sees the resistance to Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry and DaiShon Neal, part of him chuckles. The backlash simply proves the protesters’ point, Abdullah said, that too many whites don’t understand because it’s not their problem.
“I can’t even be mad at them, because it’s a lack of perspective,” Abdullah said. “They’ve never been in those situations and they don’t have to deal with the fear a lot of African-Americans have. It’s just such a racial disconnect.”
They said it
The World-Herald reached out this week to black former Huskers who have closely followed the national anthem protest and subsequent responses. Here’s a sampling of their opinions:
On the protest and its public response:
Steve Warren (defensive lineman, 1996-99): “I have nothing but respect for (Michael Rose-Ivey) because it’s just like Colin Kaepernick, everybody knows what type of backlash you’re going to get from this. For him — and for the other two young men to go ahead — I completely respect them. I don’t particularly see it as a sign of disrespect to anyone. Because at the end of the day, most of the men and women who fight for our country will tell you that they fight for the rights of this country. The right to protest silently and peacefully is one of our privileges. So I feel like he is taking advantage of his American privileges.”
Will Shields (offensive lineman, 1989-92): “It’s not like they’re yelling or screaming at anybody. They’re expressing themselves in saying that there are issues still in America across the board that needs to be dealt with. ... I’m not saying that it’s a good thing for them to kneel, but we are in America and you can express yourself, and as long as it doesn’t affect the rest of the people that are trying to get ready for their game, then it should be left as it is.”
Cory Ross (I-back, 2002-05): “It would’ve been a huge distraction for the team if those guys just decided to do that with no one knowing. ... The way (Rose-Ivey) approached it, you could tell he thoroughly thought about this for a long time and talked about it with his family and his coaches. To me, I was very impressed with that approach. I was more proud of the process and how our Huskers handled it. How eloquently they went at it, I thought, was a beautiful thing.”
On the decision to participate in the protest:
Dan Alexander (I-back, 1997-2000): “The point is not to offend people, the point is to bring awareness to your cause and bring change. There’s always that slippery slope where you’re trying to maximize effect without pissing off the very people you’re trying to bring along with you to affect change.
“I think in this case, I think a lot of athletes are trying to stand for ending this cycle, but unfortunately sometimes when they stand for it, it looks like they’re standing against police and military and the country. ... Maybe I would have my hand on my heart with my left hand and my right hand up in the air. Showing respect for my country and all the great military men and women and police men and women, but also doing something out of the ordinary that brought attention to my cause. It might not have gotten as much of a firestorm, but it probably would’ve gotten the same awareness doing that.
“In the weekly press conference, I would’ve said, ‘Hey, this is what I intend to do in solidarity with these people.’ At that point, everybody’s looking for it. I would’ve said, ‘Hey, this next game, I’m going to show respect for my country by standing up and covering my heart for the national anthem, but I’m also going to show concern for this issue that affects people my particular age and skin tone.’”
DeJon Gomes (defensive back, 2009-10): “You have to know yourself as a person. You can’t go and do something that you’ll feel bad about because you’re gonna face ramifications for it. Once you cross that line and you do that, there’s no go-backs. Honestly, once their football career’s over, that’s what they may be noted for. The fan base may remember them for that. Some will think it’s positive while others will think it’s negative. Are you strong enough to carry that load?
“But I share their feelings. So if I didn’t already, after this past week, I think I would absolutely do it. For the simple fact that we as a minority — as black athletes, as black America — need to stand in solidarity. I’m not gonna leave them hanging by themselves. I’m not going to leave them to face all those ramifications. I’m not gonna allow the fan base, those who really aren’t fans, to disrespect them and disrespect their lives and sit back and not do anything about it. If we’re brothers — and on that team you’re brothers — then I’m going to go through it with them. I’m not going to leave him to fend for himself.”
Warren: “If I could tell any of those athletes anything, to kneel or not to kneel does not make you any more or less African-American or any more or less about the cause. It’s a personal decision. If you want to do anything about the things that are going on, find a way to do it. If you choose not to kneel and you are concerned about things that are going on in this country, then find a different way to impact it. Go volunteer at more schools. Don’t think that you’re less or more of anything.”
On the next step for the Huskers:
Warren: “The one thing you don’t want it to do is have it become a distraction to the team. And have this become the narrative for what’s going on in the season. ... How is the team gonna handle this? How does the team support these three young men? At the end of the day, that’s gonna determine the outcome of part of their season.
“I don’t think this is gonna separate them. If it was going to, it would’ve separated them on Saturday. Everybody on the team knew this was going to happen. Distractions are only things that you let be distractions. We appreciate the fans, but the only thing that matters is what you do together on that field.”