The latest chapter of the three Southern Illinois University cheerleaders who knelt during the anthem last year to protest police brutality is a complicated one.
First, only one returned to the team this year; one didn’t enroll at the university.
Then SIU Athletics administrators attempted to add new language to their Code of Conduct to ban displays of “activism,” which could lead to an individual’s removal from the program.
And then, after the ban on activism was disclosed in the student newspaper, the Daily Egyptian, the university reversed course again.
The policy proposed this fall said, “It is a privilege and not a right to be a student-athlete, cheerleader or spirit member at Southern Illinois University. Members of the department including student athletes cheerleaders and spirit members must remain neutral on any issue political in nature when wearing SIU official uniforms and when competing/performing in official department of athletics events and activities. Any display (verbal or non-verbal) of activism (either for or against) a political issue will not be tolerated and may result in dismissal from the program.”
The proposed policy was provided the Daily Egyptian by Liz Jarnigan, SIU Athletics senior woman administrator.
“We are just not wanting anybody who represents the department of athletics and wears the colors to get involved in heated discourse on one side or the other,” Jarnigan said at the time. “It’s not the appropriate place and we are not wanting to make political statements of any kind when were representing the university, the Department of Athletics, any academic institution and southern Illinois in general.”
Jarnigan said the proposed addition to the Code of Conduct was to promote a message of unity.
“We have this policy because were wanting to put forward a message of unity and by taking sides or offending one side or the other… that’s not what we believe [is our] purpose,” Jarnigan said. Jarnigan is a recent hire by acting athletic director Jerry Kill.. Jarnigan previously served in similar roles at the Air Force Academy and at San Jose State.
Tom Weber, SIU Athletics spokesman, said given the community feedback it appeared that athletics “somewhat missed the mark” and does not plan to use the proposed policy it as currently written but would revisit the addition at a later date.
Praise and criticism for SIU Athletics have been voiced on social media after the DE’s disclosure. Questions and concerns over the language arose from national organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Southern Illinois University’s new policy suggesting that players or cheerleaders could be removed from their respective program for peaceful ‘displays of activism’ falls short of the critical responsibility of a public university to honor and protect free speech rights for their students,” said Ed Yohnka, Director of Communications and Public Policy at the ACLU of Illinois.
Gregory Magarian, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said he shared similar sentiments.
“If we’re going to say there’s nothing political about standing for the national anthem then we are saying one of two things – we’re saying it’s meaningless, or we’re saying that we are absolutely forcing a consensus political view on everybody and it has political significance – and you will obey that political significance, or you are out.”
Magarian said he does not believe either of those situations are viable on their own terms.
The day after the Daily Egyptian reported on the addition, SIU Athletics rescinded the policy.
Weber, the associate athletic director, said “some have interpreted the language to suggest that our aim was to restrict the free speech rights of our students – that was never our intent. We fully support the free expression of ideas and opinions among our students and the entire Saluki family.”
In a later article by the Southern Illinoisan, Kill, SIU Acting Athletic Director, called the report that the addition was final was “wildly exaggerated.”
There were several versions of the language, Kill told the Southern Illinoisan.
Weber said the department will be working with student-athletes to turn the language into a positive values statement related to the focus and purpose of athletics.
Brian Munoz is a staff reporter for the Daily Egyptian.