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McCready: Ole Miss did itself proud in supporting players' protest

Ole Miss players kneel during the national anthem prior to the Rebels' 72-71 win over Georgia.
Ole Miss players kneel during the national anthem prior to the Rebels' 72-71 win over Georgia.

OXFORD — As a pro-Confederate rally made its way from Oxford to the Ole Miss campus, the national anthem was performed inside The Pavilion at Ole Miss.

As the familiar refrains began, several Ole Miss players quietly, peacefully took a knee. By the time the song ended, according to most accounts, eight Rebels had joined in silent protest of what was going outside.

Six players _ KJ Buffen, D.C. Davis, Brian Halums, Luis Rodriguez, Devontae Shuler and Bruce Stevens _ kneeled throughout the song. Breein Tyree and Franco Miller Jr. took a knee on the anthem’s final line.

There were a few boos when it ended, and there was certainly some anger and frustration from some who had made the trip to campus for the Rebels’ Southeastern Conference showdown with Georgia.

For the most part, however, Ole Miss fans supported the players’ right to express themselves. Then, in the minutes after the Rebels’ 72-71 win over the Bulldogs, Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis and athletics director Ross Bjork publicly supported the players, expressing pride in their decision to visibly express their sentiment.

The looming protest has been a source of consternation and concern for weeks. On Saturday, the protesters, many waving Confederate flags, gathered around the Confederate statue in front of the Lafayette County Courthouse on the famous Oxford Square. The pro-Confederate rally culminated with a march to the Ole Miss campus, approximately a mile away. A group of approximately 50 counter-protestors gathered and were kept separated from the pro-Confederates. Both groups departed without incident during the second half of the basketball game.

Tyree said there wasn’t any discussion among the players prior to Saturday’s game.

“We’re just tired of these hate groups coming to our school and portraying our campus like it’s our actual university having these hate groups in our school,” Tyree said. “The majority of it was we saw one of our teammates doing it and we just didn’t want him to be alone.”

Davis and Bjork said they weren’t aware of the players’ intentions before the game, but both men strongly supported the players.

“This was all about the hate groups that came to our community and tried to spread racism and bigotry,” said Davis, who has led an Ole Miss team predicted to finish last in the SEC to a 19-9 record and in strong position to land and NCAA Tournament berth next month. “It’s created a lot of tension for our campus. I think our players made an emotional decision to show these people they’re not welcome on our campus. I respect our players’ freedom and ability to choose that.”

”Our job is to teach and educate every single day,” Bjork said. “You know what, they're human. They're students. They see what's happening on our campus and these people that come here and spill hate and bigotry and racism, we don't want them on our campus. Our players stood up for that. It had nothing to do with the anthem. It had nothing to do with anything beyond, 'You know what, we don't want those people here. They're protesting during our game and that's not right because that's not the Ole Miss that I know.' We talked to them about that in the locker room and that's their expression. We support them. We don't want those people here either. The university doesn't want them. Our town doesn't want them. They're out of state. They're not from here. And so, you know what, good for the players for standing up and making a statement.

“I think we have to really look at it for what it is and it's about these outside groups from out of state and that's it. I love what Breein said.”

Davis said Tyree and his teammates “have a great love for Ole Miss and the University of Mississippi and they want our campus and our university portrayed in a great way.” Davis said he talked to several current players’ mothers in recent days, assuring them that their sons’ well-being was Priority No. 1.

“Trust me, we have two daughters,” Davis said. “The No. 1 thing is the well-being and safety of the students here on campus and our players. We did that. We addressed it yesterday as a team and just talked about the events that were happening.”

Ole Miss couldn’t have handled Saturday better than it did. Oxford is always under the microscope when race-related events occur. Fair or not, there’s no avoiding that. Ole Miss has a past, dating back to 1962, and no matter how many positive steps the university takes, there’s a perception that the school must always fight.

It would’ve been easy Saturday to take a neutral stance. Ole Miss didn’t. Instead, it allowed its players to have a voice and then strongly supported the message they were attempting to convey.

Ole Miss entertains Tennessee Wednesday night. Tyree said he didn’t think there would be a continuation of the kneeling prior to the meeting with the Volunteers. A sellout crowd is expected for a game that, if the Rebels win, would punch Ole Miss’ ticket to the NCAA Tournament.

The players who take the court that night will do so knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, they have the support of the school they represent.