Eight of the 15 Northwestern women’s basketball players kneel while the other seven stay in the locker room as the national anthem plays ahead of their home match-up against Penn State on Jan. 20. With both actions, the players have been protesting since last season against racial injustices and police brutality. Photo by Colin Salao / Medill

For the last two seasons, the Northwestern women’s basketball team has protested during the playing of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to the tipoff of each game. In the 2020-21 season, the players and staff stayed in the locker room as the anthem played, creating an empty space on one side of the court. In the ongoing 2021-22 season, some of the players and staff have continued this practice, while others have come out and taken a knee during the national anthem, a form of protest popularized by former NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016.

“It's a small form of expression,” senior center Courtney Shaw, who has remained in the hallway for the anthem over the last two seasons, said of the team’s protests. “But it speaks volumes when you consistently do it.”

The tradition of playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to sporting events gained footing in the early 1900s as an act of patriotism, particularly during times of war. However, during this different type of battle – one against racial injustice and police brutality – this pregame moment has become a key platform for peaceful protest for sports teams since the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, as professional athletes from leagues like the NBA, NHL and NFL each took time during the anthem to demonstrate.

When deciding what their team would do by the time their season rolled around, Shaw said the team used “sharing spaces” for the players and staff to respectfully hear each other’s views. This was where she and a few others were able to share their stance.

“I don’t think this anthem was made for me and people that look like me,” Shaw said. However, Shaw – whose father served in the Marine Corps – said she understands why people choose to stand and pay their respects to the flag. Ultimately, the team operates such that each individual can follow their personal beliefs.

“We don’t tell [players or staff] what they have to do,” Shaw said. “We want people to express themselves and make a stance in the way they want to.”

Standing beside the kneeling players during every anthem of this season are a few members of the coaching staff, including head coach Joe McKeown on the far end with his hand on his heart. Associate head coach Kate Popovec places her hand on the shoulder of the closest kneeling player, a sign of the respect given by the coaches to the players despite the difference in action.

“They are very united as a group, and we're just here to support them to try to make sure that they have a voice [and] have the opportunity to do the things that they want to do,” McKeown said. “[We’re] really proud of them.”

Maria Sanchez, Northwestern Athletics' chief diversity and inclusion officer said that the department is fully supportive of the athletes’ use of their platform.

“We stand in front of every team at the beginning [or] at some point during the year to make sure that there is that message that we support their activism,” Sanchez said.

Beyond the anthem protest, the women’s basketball team – along with many other Northwestern teams – have included a patch of the Black Power fist above the school’s name on the front of their jersey. The fist is associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and rose to prominence with the Black Panther Party in the mid-'60s. The symbol received international attention during the 1968 Mexico Olympics when American 200-meter dash medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists during the medal ceremony as the national anthem played.

The team’s home game on January 20 against Penn State was this season's “Together We Win” game, part of the campaign of the same name launched by the Department of Athletics and Recreation for each team in the 2021-22 academic year.

“We want to be a diverse and inclusive community that fosters belonging and celebrates authenticity,” Sanchez said of the event. “We thought, ‘Where can we amplify our commitment on our biggest stage?’ From an athletics perspective, that biggest stage is game day.”

Before the game, the players wore black warm-ups with “Together We Win” written in front, and the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – widely considered the Black national anthem – played before “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Two spectators sitting courtside kneel during the playing of the national anthem in solidarity with the Northwestern women’s basketball players. Photo by Colin Salao / Medill

While Northwestern has been supportive of its teams, the general reaction to anthem protests throughout the country has not always been positive, and Shaw said her teammates have been booed or received negative comments from fans on the road. However, there have been no reports of such issues in Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“Our team especially is very aware and passionate about diversity and inclusion,” junior guard Laya Hartman said after the game. “This game in particular, and everything that was done for the game really spoke to us a lot, so we really appreciate everything that was put together.”

Colin Salao is a freelance sportswriter and journalism graduate student at Medill specializing in sports media.