The shuffling of shoes on bleachers quiets as the national anthem begins to shake the stadium. Fans rise, remove their hats and place their hands over their hearts.
Some athletes on the sideline of Donald R. Dizney Stadium stand with the crowd. But most of the team members kneel to make their voices heard with silence.
When the first note of the anthem reverberates, the athletes take a knee or stand upright. The squad places a hand over their hearts and another over a teammate’s shoulder to express unity among the team.
Demonstrations like kneeling for the anthem, which became commonplace a year ago during the COVID-19 pandemic, have grown scarce. The Florida Gators soccer team, however, refuses to surrender the fight against injustice as some communities in the U.S. struggle for equality.
The form of protest stems back to 2016 with professional athletes, such as former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, at the forefront. It reignited after the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed by a police officer, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020.
Kouri Peace, a junior forward, kneels with her teammates to bring awareness of ongoing racial injustices in the country.
“There are people who are treated unfairly because of the color of their skin in America, and it’s not right,” Peace said. “Even though [kneeling], right now, may not seem like the right thing to do, I feel like it is in my heart because I’ve had personal experiences and worries about my loved ones.”
A year and a half ago, the UF roster met to discuss each athlete’s perspective about the injustices taking place. Everyone was transparent with how they felt and if they were going to participate in the demonstrations.
The team said no hateful comments or gruesome debates were sparked, despite the heavy topics. The squad came to an agreement within minutes, and the season continued with no off-field quarrels.
Peace said she’ll never stop fighting and wants to set an example for the next generation.
“Always do what you feel is right, even when there are people telling you that it’s wrong,” she said.
A specific line of the pledge of allegiance motivates Cameron Hall, a junior, to kneel before games.
With liberty and justice for all.
She said her sign of protest symbolizes inequality against women, oppression of the LGBTQ+ community and unjust imprisonment and abuse of minorities.
“Until all — every creed, race, sexuality, nationality, and religion — have justice within our country, I will be kneeling for the national anthem,” she said.
Hall wrote in a September 2020 tweet the fight is not over.
“There has been case after case over this past summer that have shaken our country into protests,” Hall wrote. “I will be kneeling to protest inequality that has put people of color under oppression for over 400 years.”
Syd Kennedy takes a knee for racial equality and the end of racism put forth by the criminal justice system and the courts. The defender also uses the moment to magnify the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community, a society of which she’s a proud member.
The team hasn’t received any backlash from fans or fellow students around campus. While social media holds some heinous dialogue, the team usually removes any hateful comments. Peace said the official team email does receive a few messages critiquing the demonstration.
Comments ranging from accusations of disrespect toward the country and the military poured in, but the team refused to stop.
“[The emails] don’t affect me,” Peace said. “I know the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing. It doesn’t change the fact I’m kneeling for equality in America, which I do not have yet.”
Peace also made it clear the demonstration doesn’t mean any disrespect toward veterans or those serving in the military.
Gators fans who berate the team, Hall said, never truly supported them in the first place.
“We're not going to change our protest stance, no matter if someone pushes back,” Hall said. “If they're not going to support us as complete humans, then we don't really want your support on the soccer field … At the end of the day, we're going to stand up for what we believe in.”
First-year head coach Tony Amato is an on-and-off participant of the demonstration at the back of the line.
Amato, former coach for the Arizona Wildcats, was hired late in the offseason. He was never told the protest would take place at the start of the season, but he didn’t push back when he found out.
“We're not going to change what we do, whether he has a different opinion or not,” Hall said.
In a post-game press conference, Amato said he would never prevent his players from sharing important messages and speaking out against racial injustice.
The fight against injustice has been a long battle but Florida soccer athletes like Peace, Hall and Kennedy kneel for its end.
Contact Jesse Richardson at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JesseRich352.