Kneeling Under Pressure: The Intersection of Athletics and Activism

by Lelosa Aimufua 

On November 9, 2016, Emma Morgan-Bennett ‘20 and I, Lelosa Aimufua ‘20, took a knee at our volleyball game. The women’s volleyball team is one of the more diverse teams on campus; almost half of the players are women of color. Even with this diversity in a predominantly white sport, I feel as though my identity as an African American women is glaring next to my white teammates.

Throughout my volleyball career, I’ve looked towards my opponents searching for the familiar tones of melanin on their teams. I most often find the Black players in the middle position, a position argued to be one of the more aggressive positions on the court. People have assumed that because of my height— and presumably my color —my sport of choice is basketball, not volleyball. My lifetime experience in athletics, although positive, has always intersected with my experience as a Black woman. When Donald Trump was elected president, my world shattered. I could not believe that American society had voted for a man that hates me and would rather see me bound by chains than living as a full citizen.

Emma and I’s decision to take a knee did not come lightly. We were driven by our moral compasses that told us we could no longer stand for a country that didn’t believe in us. We believe in an America where there is liberty and justice for all. This is not true today, as evidenced by the acceptance of hate speech, denial of basic human rights from marginalized communities, and systematic racism and white supremacy. I live in constant fear for my life, but most importantly, the lives of my younger sisters, who are forced to live in an anti-Black community. Our decision to take a knee that night, and all the nights thereafter, was authenticated by our many passions and lived experiences in an anti-Black society.

The anti-Blackness that pervades college campuses was made evident on October 12, an hour before departing campus to play at Rowan University, during “Military Appreciation Week.” Presented as a “message of concern,” my coach received an ultimatum from Rowan asking us not to kneel out of respect for our troops. The university gave us three choices: stand for the anthem and hold hands facing the flag or the audience, walk out of the gym when the anthem begins playing, or choose to kneel but risk them turning off the anthem during our protest. We tried to compromise. We wrote a statement thanking the troops for their service and explaining why we felt it necessary to take a knee. Rowan rejected this. Emma and I asked if we could talk to the coaches and administration of Rowan University to humanize our plight. Our coaches rejected our pleas for justice.

Disgusted by Rowan’s attempt to police our bodies and protest, the team decided to walk out of the gym when the anthem played. Those of us who were brave enough to kneel during our season linked arms outside the gym while the familiar notes of the national anthem played from inside. The four members of our team who didn’t kneel stayed inside, and the rest of the team that was dismissed outside the gym voiced mixed emotions regarding our separation.

To me, nothing is more frustrating than the arguments that call taking a knee “disrespectful” to those who serve in the military. I see police brutality as disrespectful. I see extreme racism that troops of color faced when they were denied voting rights, hung in their uniforms, and assaulted as disrespectful. I see George Zimmerman’s acquittal as disrespectful to Trayvon Martin’s short and valuable life. I see President Trump’s comments about the protesting NFL players as disrespectful. I see white supremacy and anti-Blackness as disrespectful. Disrespectful is not a strong enough word, and will never be a strong enough word to describe these intolerable, immoral, and repulsive actions. We kneel to bring awareness to these crimes.

I am most thankful to those who believe in the movement. From Lindsey Norward ‘18 detailing the policing of Black bodies in sports and protests in her journalism, to the rallying cries from SASS President AynNichelle Slappy ‘20 and the rest of SASS. From my white coach pledging to support and protect me throughout our protest, to the students who have abandoned prior commitments to kneel in solidarity at my games and make their voices heard. Even with the negative actions from Rowan, light emerged. I attended a SBAN networking dinner a few days later, and an alumnus actually commented on how he had been reading about our protest, and how proud he was to see that the legacy of powerful Black scholars at Swarthmore has not vanished.

What started as a physical reaction to Trump’s comments towards Black NFL players became a more organized, reflective action as time passed. Emma and I didn’t know that we would find the courage and strength within ourselves to write a statement that would eventually be distributed to all of the athletic staff at Swarthmore College, in addition to all the schools in our conference. We didn’t predict that thirteen out of the seventeen members of our team would join us in kneeling, join us in drawing attention to and combating racial inequality and violence. We didn’t expect the responsiveness of the Swarthmore community, especially from our fellow athletes who suddenly started seeking out our advice about nonviolent protest, allyship, and athletic life. We didn’t expect to become leaders of a movement rooted in athletics, education, and activism. Most of all, we didn’t expect the small actions of two players on a volleyball team to have such a significant impact on society.