2016 was the year of the national anthem protest, made famous by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during The Star-Spangled Banner to protest racial inequality in America. And while Kaepernick's peaceful protest sparked a heated debate in the middle of a divisive election year, a men's college basketball team is trying to bring people together.
On Wednesday night, the Kent State players invited fans of different races to join them on the court for the national anthem before their home opener. While an unusual gesture, it was a powerful symbol of harmony and diversity.
"We understand all of the issues going on in our world," sophomore point guard Jalen Avery said. "In these times, we felt it was important to show a sign of unity in our community. Our meaning behind it was to let everybody aware of all the things that are going on in our country know that we wanted to make a stand for unity. That was basically our symbol, and we wanted to treat everybody as one."
Joel Nielsen, the school's director of athletics, called the gesture a powerful example of "Kent State student-athletes stepping up as leaders in our diverse community."
"It was a special moment," senior guard Deon Edwin told ESPN. "We all come together as one. It wasn't about color of skin. If we can do that at a small school, everyone can do it."
According to head coach Rob Senderoff, the decision to have a more inclusive national anthem was initiated entirely by the players.
"There's a lot of people protesting the national anthem, or protesting the election, or race relations. You see all of that nationally, and our guys wanted to make a statement," Senderoff said at the game. "It was a tremendously positive statement. Hopefully, everybody can recognize that. I have a lot of African-American players on my team that have faced discrimination because of the color of their skin."
Kent State hopes to invite fans of different races onto the court for the national anthem before all of its home games this year.