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Home > Featured > Black student-led initiative wants to ‘Bring Back Kap,’ tackle racism at UNR

Black student-led initiative wants to ‘Bring Back Kap,’ tackle racism at UNR

By Sudhiti Naskar
Published: Last Updated on
Colin Kaepernick during a Nevada game.

Black students at the University of Nevada, Reno, are urging their school to more decisively recognize Colin Kaepernick, one of its most prominent alumnus and activists of this time. Associated Students of the University of Nevada President Dominique Hall and Wolf Pack defensive end Jaden Lewis are at the forefront of this initiative.

A working group of five students is making moves to address racism embedded within the day-to-day experiences of students of color while they empower the ongoing efforts to recognize Kaepernick. They have discovered that both issues are joined at the hip.

Once celebrated as “probably the greatest player to ever play” at Nevada in the words of former football coach Chris Ault, Kaepernick became a bone of contention in 2016 after he knelt on the sideline during the national anthem as a peaceful protest of police brutality against communities of color. There are allegations the university quietly removed his likeness from promotional materials after controversy erupted; UNR disputes this occurred, but students say otherwise.

But as the National Football League is heading into week three of its 2020 season, Kaepernick remains popular among many fans. Last Friday an all-black jersey by NIKE released to commemorate Kaepernick’s protest sold out in minutes.

Among UNR students, especially the football players, “Kaepernick is always in the conversation,” said Lewis, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, the fraternity the star-athlete-turned-activist was a member of during his time at UNR.

A changing relationship

Kaepernick’s career in college football started in 2007 at UNR, and he graduated in 2011. Ault, who generously praised Kaepernick during his Wolf Pack years, later criticized the player, saying he should have chosen a different way to express his opinion against police brutality.

“It was a tense period when people were trying to figure out where they stood,” said Caesar Andrews, professor at the UNR Reynolds School of Journalism. “You had this incredible athlete, someone who may be considered to be an incredible person, and instead of sticking with the script of playing ball and shutting the hell up except for platitudes, he did something that was very provocative and dramatic. So, I think it kind of left people trying to figure out if they needed to choose sides.”

The following year Ault re-asserted his stance, saying that without the protest Kaepernick would still be playing in the NFL. In an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal Ault said it was “ridiculous” that Kaepernick wasn’t playing and praised the player for his abilities.

Today, of course, police killings continue to draw controversy as riots have erupted around the U.S. this summer.

Colin Kaepernick playing for Nevada against Boise State
Colin Kaepernick playing for Nevada against Boise State. John Byrne/Nevada Athletics

“Part of what was driving the reactions locally was the national and international visibility to the point where national politicians are weighing in and some people are choosing to draw a thick line and wanting to declare that if you are on this side of the line supporting Kaepernick, there’s something unpatriotic about your choice and perhaps something unpatriotic about you and vice versa,” Andrews added. “If you are critical about Kaepernick and if you are lining up with the view [of] what Ault had expressed in one of his interviews, that you are on the right side of patriotism.”

After the kneeling in 2016, the university tried to reach out to Kaepernick, said Paul Mitchell, also a professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, who knew Kaepernick when he was a student.

The university asked Mitchell to moderate a panel discussion, which they hoped Kaepernick would attend. They also asked him to “facilitate” the relationship rebuilding, he said. “So, I called up all my channels. I talked to the guy who actually wrote the story about Kaepernick [kneeling as a form of protest]. His name is Steve Wyche. Never got a response. I called up a couple other people. No response.”

Multiple interviews and documents suggest that Kaepernick used to be much more accessible. An official statement by the university qualified him as “the good-hearted person who responds warmly and good-naturedly to texts from his fraternity brothers at the University.” It mentioned how he seemed unaffected by his fame as a 49ers player and kept in touch with his old acquaintances.

According to Mitchell, something unpleasant might have happened to Kaepernick while he played for Nevada which is why he no longer responds. But he wasn’t able to provide any detail.

Students believe that since the kneeling, the university has changed how it celebrated Kaepernick.

“The university administration denied that they took down Kaepernick’s things,” said Dominique Hall. “That’s pretty problematic, [because] I meet President Marc Johnson and Vice President [for Student Services] Shannon Ellis on a weekly basis, and they said themselves that the university did not take down his stuff, and I had to counter it… When I would come here for tours as a senior in high school, I saw Kaepernick everywhere, and then and when I got here there is none of his stuff. So it seems like the university is trying to make it seem like they didn’t do anything, but, clearly, his stuff is gone.”

Lewis also did not see “many, if any” photos of Kaepernick when he arrived on campus in 2017. But “players told me there was a lot up before, but suddenly it went away,” he said in communication with This Is Reno.

While photos of Kaepernick might have been removed, the university took a stand when the Reno-Tahoe International Airport took down Kaepernick’s photo in the terminal area in the aftermath of the kneeling. Following the intervention, the airport authority reinstated his photo.

Former President Marc Johnson has lent his support to Kaepernick on various occasions, as well.

In an official statement to This Is Reno, UNR pointed to its June statement addressing racism on campus which was signed by leadership from across the campus. It featured a seven-point action plan including a public review of policing standards, bringing thoughtful and prominent recognition celebrating Colin Kaepernick and those Black social justice pioneers who came before him at UNR, and other initiatives to facilitate diversity, culture and equity on campus.

The seven-point plan came in response to concerns expressed by Black students in a statement through the #ListenToUs platform.

What is the ‘Bring Back Kap’ campaign?

The working group that Hall and Lewis are engaged in is considering naming the campaign as “Bring Back Kap,” although they are yet to finalize it.

This year, there have been a few activities, like collecting signatures and demanding a statue of Kaepernick at Mackay Stadium, from UNR’s student community and alumni. At the same time, many have raised deeper questions: does having a statue address the problems of racism within the campus?

Jaden Lewis

In the current political climate, Black students like Lewis feel that the university already has the baggage of racial tension with one of its students taking part in a 2017 white nationalist rally. Then, stairwells in the arts building and the business building were vandalized with murals of a swastika in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Outside the journalism building posters by a white nationalist group were discovered.

Lewis said he did not want “to get too deep into it” but shared some of his personal experiences as a UNR student that left him feeling uncomfortable.

“Here I have seen white people that I thought am generally friends with who go out and post ‘drunk Thursday,’ ‘drunk weekend night’ [photos and videos] and they have these white supremacist emblems in the background, they are handshaking or cracking jokes,” he said.

The jokes are about George Floyd, Lewis said. “Like they have his knee on his neck for nine minutes; he is calling out for his mother,” said Lewis. “They think it’s funny.” Also, he saw students agreeing with President Trump’s mocking of disabled people or disrespecting of Kaepernick, who he infamously alluded to as “that son of a bitch” at a rally. “It hurts me to see how far they will go, and laugh about…my greater good as a person of color.”

“On this campus, given there is that history…nonchalantly accepting Kaepernick as an alumni, as [a] previous athlete…there’s always that shakiness, that blockade right before comfort,” said Lewis.

Social justice remains at the heart of this campaign, inspiring students of all races to be introspective. This is why the group is steering clear of direct institutional influences. They do not want the campaign to be an ASUN event.

“That’s like the Black Lives Matter movement being taken by the government; that’s like the White House saying we like the Black Lives Matter movement because it’s trendy!” said Hall. ASUN can be a partner, she said, “but I want to make sure ASUN is not controlling it. And when Kaepernick is here it’s not an ASUN event, it’s a Black Student Union event partnered with ASUN.”

Hall detailed about different objectives of the campaign. One of the main focuses will be on mending Nevada Athletics’ relationship with Kaepernick, mobilizing the student community to ask Athletics to issue an apology to Kaepernick.

The “end goal is to have Kaepernick on campus and speak.” Hall seemed positive that the group knows the right people to bring Kaepernick back to campus. “It’s kind of similar to, we had Angela Davis here, Charlie Kirk, it’s similar to those types of people. Our end goal is to have him here first, then students can go about a statue.”

Nevada Athletics said Kaepernick has been back to campus to speak, albeit in 2015 well before his sideline protest, as the keynote speaker for the Governor’s Dinner event. They added, “The University and the athletics department have been supportive of Colin throughout his endeavors, on and off the field…. There are probably more pictures of Colin in our athletics facilities – Mackay Stadium, Cashell Football Center, Legacy Hall, etc. – than any other athlete in Nevada history.”

Getting Athletics–and athletes–on board

In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, UNR’s student community, especially the footballers, found themselves at a turning point.

“On social media people were starting to call people out for their silence,” recalled Lewis. “I personally called people out, the teammates of mine, and [asked] ‘say something, I don’t know how you feel right now. Are you okay with all of this? Does my life matter to you? Because at that point, I don’t know how much I want to line up next to you. I don’t know how good I feel practicing with you every day.”

Current Nevada head coach Jay Norvell talked with Lewis about the issue as Lewis was “vocal” on social media. “And he said, ‘if anyone’s feeling like they are uncomfortable with their teammates then we have to address that no matter how uncomfortable it is,’ and so we did,” said Lewis. “We had a lot of Zoom calls about it, and we got [together] in person. So, we had some talks, and then we decided that we will get the whole team. It was emotional; it was good. At first, the conversation was a little shaky, a little rough, kind of uncomfortable. People who didn’t experience kind of the same racism as a Black person, or maybe they experienced less, those people would ask questions.”

Lewis said the Black players asked their team members, “‘How are you not scared of the police when they keep coming down to the street?’ And for me, it was, man, they really don’t understand that!”

According to Lewis, the conversation led to players of different races feeling more in tune with one another. “They were like ‘You know what man, I understand. I can see that. I shouldn’t have been so ignorant to this before.’ They had a bunch of people, even coaches, they [were] calling me like, ‘You know, Jaden, I appreciate you sharing this. I can’t feel how you feel. I can’t understand how you feel, but I can only understand that I shouldn’t ignore it.’ This unified us.”

What lies ahead?

UNR’s diversity mural team, from left, artist Rafael Blanco, The Lilley Director Vivian Zavataro, School of the Arts Director Tamara Scronce, and Director of Residential Life Toby Toland. Image: UNR/Nevada Today

Recently, UNR commissioned a diversity mural on the walls of Sierra Hall with Kaepernick’s eyes towering above palettes of eyes representing diversity. And this week, Rhonda Bennett, senior associate athletics director at Nevada, confirmed that Colin Kaepernick has been nominated for the Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame this year.

“We are in the process of selecting and finalizing our Hall of Fame class, which will be announced later this fall,” she said.

According to Professor Mitchell, there’s an effort underway to mend relations with Kaepernick from the highest level of the administration. However, he said he could not provide details.

It seems that there is an information gap between the university’s efforts to recognize Kaepernick and public knowledge about it. And this gap keeps students skeptical of how much actual work is being done. The fact that Nevada Athletics has not yet released any comment on Kaepernick concerns them, they said.

“Athletics has released no statement on Kaepernick. I don’t think they even said Black Lives Matter in their Athletics statement,” Hall said.

For their part, Nevada Athletics does include within its mission the statement, “We promote a diverse and inclusive environment.” In an official statement to This Is Reno, Nevada Athletics said, “The bulk of our sports programs have released statements or other messaging this summer in support of Black Lives Matter and Kaepernick.”

The football team also put together a video detailing how the players face racism in their day-to-day lives.

“We look forward to the next opportunity to welcome Colin back to our campus,” they added.

When will these efforts yield a desired result? Lewis shared an insight into the dynamics of college football.

“You can talk about good and bad; I know that it comes down to money.” Although, Lewis  remains hopeful that Athletics has already taken a step in the right direction by having the discussions. “A journey of a thousand miles start with a single step, and, as long as people are moving forward, I can appreciate that,” he added.

Correction: Swastikas were found in the art and business buildings, not the journalism building as first reported.

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