LEXINGTON, Ky. – A beautiful thing happened Thursday night at the University of Kentucky. The school unveiled a statue honoring its first four black football players, and hundreds of people of many colors showed up to celebrate with them.
But it came at a time when many ugly things, things we wanted to believe were just an embarrassing piece of our past, keep happening elsewhere in America. So even as Nate Northington, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg saw their younger selves – and late teammate Greg Page – immortalized in a 3,500-pound bronze symbol of progress, they felt a twinge of sadness alongside the swell of pride in their hearts.
“We’ve come a long way, in some respects, but we’re starting to back up,” said Hogg, one of the first two black SEC athletes to complete his eligibility. “Things are starting to get back like they were. I don’t know what it is, but I read Facebook and I see attitudes I didn’t think were there. It’s backing up. We’ve got this thing with the police now, and it’s just getting out of hand.”
Six days before Kentucky unveiled its statue, police shot an unarmed black man named Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The white female officer who killed him has been charged with manslaughter. Two days before Kentucky honored its football pioneers, police in Charlotte, North Carolina, killed a black man named Lamont Scott whose family claims he was reading a book in his car when officers approached and determined he was armed. Protests there erupted into riots.
“Times, in respect to football, have changed,” Hogg said. “The rest of the world, the rest of the United States, I don’t think it’s changed much at all.”
Northington, the first black football player in SEC history, whose debut came 50 years ago in front of a less-than-thrilled Ole Miss crowd, sees growth. Black athletes are stars in every sport today and are widely cheered across the country, even in the deep South that UK’s pioneers once feared.
“So a lot of the culture has changed,” Northington said. “Of course, we still have a long way to go in this country, and we just have to pray that we’ll get there some day before we destroy the earth.”
Taking a stand became a theme of Thursday night’s statue ceremony, as Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said that the stand those four trailblazers made in the 1960s “still resonates today, and it challenges young people, young men, to make a stand for what’s right.”
To that end, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ignited a firestorm of controversy recently when he took a stand by not standing – kneeling instead during the national anthem before NFL games this season. It is a protest against what he believes are widespread injustices against black people in America.
He started, and was eventually joined by other players around the league in other sports, even before the latest two high-profile police shootings. Kaepernick has also felt a strong backlash from critics who say he is disrespecting the flag, our armed forces who defend the freedoms it represents, and law enforcement. He’s received death threats.
“I admire Colin Kaepernick for taking a stand,” said Hackett, the first black SEC team captain in any sport. “I’m happy for him and really proud that he’s not afraid to show his feelings. We all do our part. Look at the basketball players, LeBron James and all those guys, they put money back into the community. Whatever we do, as long as we don’t ignore the fact that there’s work to be done.
“Colin’s taking a giant step, and if that’s what he’s comfortable with, so be it. I’m happy for him. He’s not afraid to show his true feelings. Out there in Oakland, they shot a man in cold blood just last week. It’s still going on. It’s crazy. We need to shed some light on those things that are still happening, things that are still wrong in our society.”
Hogg believes much of the outrage over the specific method of Kaepernick’s protest is phony.
“How many of us stand up when we’re sitting at home watching a football game and they play the national anthem?” he said. “Do you get out of your chair and stand up while it’s playing?”
Northington, who did not speak about his role in breaking the SEC color barrier for many years, said he prefers to stay out of politics and didn’t want to weigh in on Kaepernick’s stance.
“What he’s doing is what he feels is right for the cause, for the time, for the purpose, so I can’t judge whether that’s right or wrong,” Northington said. But he can relate to being the first to do something for which stadiums full of people might boo you. “The first thing you’re going to feel is fear.”
There was none of that Thursday night, though, as Kentucky honored its past with a beautiful bronze reminder for the future. In the statue, Northington, Hackett, Hogg and Page all have their heads up, eyes ahead, and they’re striding forward.
“The more things like this that can happen, recognition regardless of race, color, creed, whatever, the better,” Northington said. “That brings me tremendous joy when we can all come together to celebrate a particular cause, regardless of difference. I guess that’s what the good Lord meant when he said we’ve got to love our neighbors as ourselves.”