Two days after kneeling together in prayer during the national anthem, Husker players Michael Rose-Ivey, DaiShon Neal and Mohamed Barry all spoke out on the reasons they wanted to use their platform as college athletes to send a message about the social injustices they see facing minorities in the world.
Rose-Ivey, a senior linebacker on the Nebraska football team, introduced himself by name before reading passionately from a prepared statement during the weekly Monday news conference.
"While the anthem played, I prayed along with DaiShon and Mohamed, and we asked God to watch over us and protect us, to look down on this country with grace and mercy, and to look down on all of us with grace and mercy," Rose-Ivey said.
There is a "systematic problem in America that needs to be addressed" regarding injustices against people of color, he said, and the three players felt it was their "duty to step up" and join those using their platforms to bring more attention to these issues.
The sight of athletes kneeling, or raising fists, during the national anthem has become more common since quarterback Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers began doing it in August, citing racial injustices and police brutality as his reasons for doing so.
While other similar protests have occurred locally, including at the high school level, the discussion on the subject has intensified since Saturday when connected with the state's most analyzed product, Nebraska football.
Opinions have been expressed from many corners, including Gov. Pete Ricketts, who during his statewide radio call-in show, told a caller that the anthem protest was "disgraceful and disrespectful" to men and women who have sacrificed for the country, but that he "respect(s) the right of those players to protest."
During that radio show, a caller suggested the players involved should lose their scholarships. "Kick them off campus," the caller said.
Rose-Ivey said the players understood the implications of their actions Saturday.
"But what we didn't expect was the enormous amount of hateful, racially-motivated comments from friends, peers, fans, members of the media and others about the method of protest," Rose-Ivey added.
"While you may disagree with the method, these reactions further underscore the need for this protest and gives us just a small glimpse into the persistent problem of racism in this country and the divisive attitude of some Americans.
"To make it clear, I am not anti-police, I am not anti-military, nor am I anti-American. I love my country deeply, and I appreciate the freedom that it professes to afford me."
While receiving support from many teammates and those in the public, Rose-Ivey said he and his family also took significant backlash on social media Saturday that "crushed me on that bus ride to the airport. I'm not going to lie."
For Barry, the feedback has been far more positive than negative. "Our fans, they agree with it. They see the injustice," the freshman linebacker said. "The biggest problem is not if they agree or disagree with what’s happening. It’s more of 'Oh, why you did it during the national anthem?'"
Husker players are routinely in the locker room during the national anthem at home games. But at Northwestern, where the Huskers played Saturday, it is common for both teams to take the field before it is performed.
Barry, who grew up in Loganville, Georgia, said he spoke to Rose-Ivey about a possible protest when it was learned Thursday what the pregame schedule was.
"You just can't say stuff and tweet stuff and not be able to follow up with action," Barry said. "For me, it was an individual choice."
Why correlate the protest with the anthem?
"When you talk about what is America, you talk about land of the free, home of the brave, justice for all. In that moment, it's almost like a challenge," Barry said. "Is the 13 percent, are we having justice for all? Are we included in that all?"
As for those who think such protests are disrespectful of military members?
"I respect them with all my heart and I know they are doing this for us," Barry said. "My uncle is in the Army. He's an officer.
"People talk about, 'Well, you're disrespecting the ...' When he comes back to America, what is he? He's a citizen. So it could happen to him, too, no matter if he's a soldier, no matter if someone is a football player, or anything. You're still a citizen."
Rose-Ivey approached Husker head coach Mike Riley on Friday night to tell him what he was considering doing the next day, and asked if he could speak to the team about it. He did so Saturday in a meeting before the game.
"I thought he very eloquently expressed his position and why he was going to do that, and so I thought it was all really well done — I mean, in the preparation of it," Riley said.
Riley said "respect" is the word he always stresses with every team he coaches. "We've all grown up differently." And in a locker room with more than 130 players, there are certainly going to be an array of opinions on social and political issues.
"Because we have guys from all kinds of backgrounds, all parts of the country, we have a real nice, and I love it, melting pot," Riley said. "And you also have a bunch of kids who are in college. I can also remember back to that time. You gain a whole new awareness of the world as you go, and you start to form those opinions that are going to make you who you are for the rest of your life."
Senior offensive guard Sam Hahn, who was one of four players who helped hold the American flag on the field during Saturday's anthem, was respectful of Rose-Ivey's decision.
"There's no line drawn on the team," Hahn said. "Mike and those guys said, 'Hey, we're going to do this.' And we said, 'OK, that's your guys' right.'"
Hahn said the four Huskers holding the flag (Drew Brown, Zack Darlington and Nick Gates were the others) was unrelated to the protest of their three teammates. When they arrived on the field, there weren't enough people to hold it up, so they volunteered.
As Rose-Ivey spoke Monday, his pace of speech quickened as he said, "We must have accountability, we must have understanding, we must have love, but we also must have genuine dialogue, we must have genuine solutions and demand genuine action."
Even though he's a college graduate and plays football for a prestigious program, the native of Kansas City, Missouri, said he still endures racism.
"I will still be referred to on Facebook and Twitter as a clueless, confused n----- by former high school classmates, friends, peers, and even Husker fans," Rose-Ivey added. "Some believe DaiShon, Mohamed and myself should be kicked off the team, should be suspended, while some believe we should be lynched or shot just like the other black people that have died recently."
Rose-Ivey stopped to compose himself.
"Another believed that since we didn't want to stand for the anthem, that we should be hung before the anthem for the next game. These are actual statements we received from fans."
During his call-in show, Ricketts condemned comments from anybody suggesting violence against the players who protested.
Rose-Ivey added that it's impossible to turn a blind eye to such things.
"I feel I am obligated to stand up and bring awareness to social injustices that are not limited to police brutality, but also the policies and laws that discriminate and they hinder the growth and opportunities of people of color, low-income people, women and other marginalized communities."
Neal said it was a peaceful protest and wanted people to just understand that there's more to him than an African-American who plays football.
Neal graduated from Omaha Central, but grew up in the Houston area before moving to Nebraska.
"People just think, yeah, he plays sports, he's living the good life," Neal said. "Yeah, I'm getting a free education, etc. But I don't think people understand the challenges that I face as an African-American male outside of football. Once you're done with the week, after Saturday, I just go back to being a normal black kid here in America that lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. People just don't understand what it's like."
For all the faults he sees in the country, Rose-Ivey said he thinks America is a great place, citing the words of the late writer and social critic James Baldwin, who penned the famous line about loving his country more than any in the world, which is why he insists on the right to criticize her perpetually.
"I love that I am able to wake up and worship my God without fear of persecution," Rose-Ivey said. "I love that I'm able to express my viewpoint and I am protected by the Constitution of the United States. This is what makes America great. But I also can't ignore those things that keep America divided."