When former third-string Pitt kicker Ian Troost took a knee during the national anthem at the team’s Oct. 14 loss to NC State, his motivation was rooted in his background.
“My reason, other than to highlight police brutality and social injustice in the United States, was because I came from a background of naivety and privilege,” Troost said.
The senior marketing major — joined by former Steeler Mike Logan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sports writer Sean Gentille and activists and educators LaTonya Salley-Sharif and Anna Hollis — sat on a panel Tuesday evening to discuss activism and sports.
The event, “Responding to Reality: Athletes, Activism and Free Expression,” was hosted by Pitt’s Center for Urban Education, and addressed issues on how athletes of all ages and platforms play a role in political activism and free expression.
Dana Thompson Dorsey — associate professor of urban education and associate director of the Center for Urban Education — and John Singer, an associate professor in the Division of Sport Management at Texas A&M University, moderated the discussion.
Dorsey said the panel was an important follow-up on a previous panel they had in 2016 about police brutality. As controversy surrounding political activism in the NFL has reentered the news cycle, she said the Center believed it would be an opportunity to hold an open forum on the issue.
“We like that we are finally going to have this discussion on such an important topic and for people who have had these various experiences, as athletes, as journalists, as educators, being able to share how they have felt given everything going on,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey began the panel by discussing the First Amendment and how rights and freedoms apply to athletes when they make the decision to kneel or speak out.
“Free speech is supposed to be a fundamental right that is afforded to us in the Constitution,” Dorsey said. “The fact that [an athlete] is kneeling is considered a silent passive expression, which the Supreme Court said is constitutionally protected as political speech.”
Logan, a Steelers safety for six years who retired in 2006, offered his input on the issue from the professional level, specifically on how the activism dynamic in the NFL works.
The NFL, Logan said, usually receives the most media coverage and controversy when it comes to players expressing their beliefs, especially in regards to race.
“The NFL … is a business,” Logan said. “When you have issues such as Colin Kaepernick, he gets called into an office. It isn’t about him anymore, it’s about the brand of the NFL shield.”
Kneeling isn’t an act specific to the football sidelines, though. Players in the NBA perform acts of activism on the job with less resistance, particularly because of closer communication between players and administration, Gentille explained.
Logan agreed, and pointed out social justice work can begin at a young age. As a high school football coach, he has had to come at the defense of his team when they are questioned for their activism on the sidelines.
Once, at a game, he was approached by an opposing coach who disagreed with his players kneeling.
“The athletic director came up to us, the opposing coach came up to us, and said, ‘We don’t want to start that at this level,’” Logan said. “I said, ‘Why not? Why can we not allow our children to express themselves?’”
Hollis, the executive director for Amachi Pittsburgh — a youth assistance for dealing with parental incarceration — said the problem often arises when one black individual’s actions are taken and applied more broadly to the black community. Hollis felt this is where understanding on social injustice issues could arise.
“In this country, it’s possible for white people to live their entire lives without having an African American you can get to know personally,” Hollis said. “You do have the power. You have the ability to effect change and you got to start with your voice.”
Junior French and communication major Dana Good, who was in attendance at the panel, said the panelists offered a productive discussion of political activism in sports.
“I didn’t fully understand the choice of panelists at first, but I do think it led to a productive discussion,” Good said. “I really liked how three of the panelists were women, and how they were able to get their voices out there and be represented.”
Senior marketing major Jordan Jones also said he was surprised by the perspective of some of the panelists, particularly that of Troost.
“I never really thought about what Ian said about not knowing black people but … feeling so compelled to do something,” Jones said. “That’s something rare I haven’t really heard of.”
Jones said it is important to emphasize the role college students can have in continuing Responding to Reality’s conversation elsewhere. He said when the chance comes about to raise awareness to an issue, nobody should shy away from making a difference.
When it comes down to a person’s background or race, Troost said the sense of brotherhood that comes with being on a sports team triumphs over these factors, and that it should be applied to society at large.
“When you’re on a team, you’re brothers,” Troost said. “So why should I have my teammates feel they’ve been treated unjustly, and why should I not say something about that, especially as someone who is a human being?”