Programs at MSU give student-athletes knowledge of how to stay grounded during times of protest

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Players from the Michigan State football team stand for the national anthem before a game this past season.

Emily Elconin

Players from the Michigan State football team stand for the national anthem before a game this past season.

What started as a kneel during the national anthem by NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest the treatment of African-Americans in the United States has since inspired athletes across the country to join the movement.

This includes student-athletes at Michigan State University.

On Sept. 20, MSU senior graduate transfer defensive end Gabe Sherrod sent out a series of tweets saying he was ready to publicly stand for what he believes is right. His tweet came the day after Tulsa police released video of a white female police officer fatally shooting Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old black man who was not armed.

Sherrod’s Twitter followers nearly doubled in just a few days.

In another case, a group of MSU football players that included Sherrod, senior fullback Delton Williams and freshman safety Kenney Lyke, raised their fists during the national anthem at the Wisconsin football game Sept. 24.

The symbol has been repeated by professional and student-athletes across the country to protest a series of fatal shootings of African-Americans by police.

The gesture has been criticized as sign of disrespect to the flag or to veterans, but Sherrod says those critics are wrong.

“It’s just about being proud of who you are and wanting that representation across the country that I’m proud to be African-American,” Sherrod said. “I’m proud to be here, and over the course of many, many years, without the ones before me, it wouldn’t be possible.

“It’s not a sign of disrespect to the flag. It’s not a sign of disrespect to our veterans. It’s really a sign that African-Americans are Americans. We are people of this country just as well as any other culture.”

Sherrod and other student-athletes are coached by Michigan State officials about how to speak on social issues like the Black Lives Matter. The program isn’t an effort to keep athletes from speaking about social movements, officials say, but instead to make sure they understand the effects of their words.

Each year, freshman and new transfer students are brought together for a three-hour program to learn how to conduct themselves on social media and in public. They talk about things like relationship violence, character integrity and leadership principles.

“In Gabe’s case, being a graduate student, he is actually a very mature young man and even going through training, he didn’t understand the magnitude,” said Jim Pignataro, executive associate athletic director and director of student-athlete services. “You can tell someone over and over, ‘You don’t realize the impact you have.’ I’m not glad for him that that happened from a standpoint of he had to manage that, but boy he learned a great life lesson.”

Coach Mark Dantonio was asked about the players’ actions after the Wisconsin game and was supportive of the way they conducted themselves.

“I can’t make assumptions for our players on what they’ve gone through in their lives,” Dantonio said in a press conference. “All I can do is try to lead the best way I can and be positive and accepting of our football team and our players. And when we come together after the national anthem, we come together in solidarity.”

Pignataro has often found that the best way to get students and student-athletes to talk about things people don’t want to talk about is to discuss how it affects the athlete and their brand. One way to do that is an exercise called “Agree/Disagree.”

Pignataro gave ice cream as an example. If someone were to get up and say, “I like chocolate ice cream more than I like vanilla ice cream,” the students who agree with that statement head to one side of the room and the students who don’t agree with that statement go to the other. The activity is designed to provide a safe space in which students can talk freely about the issues they may be facing.

“Programs like that, I think they help the younger guys more because they’re able to understand where they’re at,” Sherrod said. “Understand that this is no longer high school. Everything that you say and do isn’t just held to your community or your group of friends. It’s held to your college campus, it falls back to your president, your coaches for bringing you here, the state of Michigan and so many implications that come with being a Spartan and with being a college student.”

Student-athletes also are held accountable by their teammates and coaching staff. Earlier this year, the Michigan State baseball team, along with coach Jake Boss Jr., went on a fishing trip as a bonding experience.

“There’s at least one person in your life that you don’t want to disappoint and you have to tell them,” Pignataro said. “When you’re an athlete, you have that as a coaching staff, they’re your support staff. Thirteen full-time people working with 800 athletes. I mean you’re constantly accountable to all of these people in your lives.”