University President Eli Capilouto and Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart also issued a joint statement in which they defended the players’ “right of self-expression.”
After the demonstration, a county sheriff in Kentucky posted a video in which he and a jailer burned Wildcats merchandise, and officials in another county proposed the state reallocate funds to the university.
Isaiah Jackson, a freshman forward for Kentucky, was particularly upset by a noose that hung from a makeshift gallows assembled on the Mall. “It was a couple of things,” Jackson said (via ESPN) after the game against Florida. “Like, I saw the noose. That was just — was out of pocket. That’s just something that people shouldn’t do. I feel like people have their own opinions, but that was just, like, that was just out of pocket. Just breaking in is just crazy to me.”
Senior forward Olivier Sarr said the players’ action was self-explanatory. “What happened in the past few days, few weeks and even during quarantine, we just want to show support for our community and raise awareness on the things that happened lately,” he said. “It comes from a place of understanding peaceful conversations and being open-minded. That’s it.”
Keion Brooks Jr., a sophomore forward, said the demonstration was a response to the Capitol riot and “some other things that we don’t see that go on every day that are unacceptable.”
Calipari spoke with his players before their action and offered to join them. “These kids are good kids,” Calipari said (via the Courier Journal). “They care about this country and all the other stuff. They’re trying to figure out life and making statements they think they have to make. I want to listen to what they’re saying, and then I’ll support them if they want me to be there.”
Sarr told reporters Monday that players were aware their action could draw criticism. “Well, you know, we understood our gesture would have consequences,” he said. “And that we just want people to understand. We knew some people would be mad or p—– at what we did. But we just want people to understand that it’s just a peaceful way to protest in a way we can, using our platform.”
Their hope, he added, was to send a message of unity. “I think what was really powerful was Coach doing it with us,” Sarr said. “He did it for us, for the cause, and I think it’s showing that we’re all together in this and even though some people might disagree … we just want to be treated equal.”
Laurel County Sheriff John Root was among the critics, saying the team had “disrespected the American flag and our national anthem” in a Facebook video, since deleted, in which he burned a shirt commemorating a Wildcats Final Four appearance. Jamie Mosley, a county jailer, joined him and threw a shirt on the fire.
On Facebook, Root stated that the demonstration was related to the military, although athletes have stated that they are protesting social injustice and police brutality. “Can you imagine the blood and sweat that has been lost for that flag???” Root wrote. “I lost a Uncle in Vietnam fighting for our rights and I know a lot of Veterans that have fought and each of you have family that have made sacrifices as well! But honestly to think that a so called Coach and team would take such actions sickens me.
“The UK apparel and memorabilia is gone tomorrow and until we get a real man to lead the cats and a real team you will not see me back in no UK junk and if you do just come right up and hit me square in the mouth!!!”
A resolution adopted by the Knox County Fiscal Court asked Gov. Andy Beshear and members of the state legislature to reallocate tax funds given to the university, according to the Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky.
But Eli Capilouto, the university’s president, and Mitch Barnhart, the athletic director, issued a supportive statement.
“A value we all hold dear in our country is the right of free speech and self-expression,” Capilouto and Barnhart said jointly. “That right for young students such as these is important, too, as they learn, grow, and find out who they are and what they believe. We won’t always agree on every issue. However, we hope to agree about the right of self-expression, which is so fundamental to who we are as an institution of higher learning. We live in a polarized and deeply divided country. Our hope — and that of our players and our coaches — is to find ways to bridge divides and unify.”