CECIL HURT: Soccer brings sports, protest and some history to UA campus

Cecil Hurt
The Tuscaloosa News
Alabama and Tennessee players make a statement against racism before their game in Tuscaloosa Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, in the first game of the 2020 soccer season. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

If you didn’t notice the masks, you might have taken the first athletic contest on the University of Alabama campus in over six months as relatively normal. There was a decent crowd of family and friends on hand, maybe 200 or so, sweltering in the humidity that, even on a cloudy afternoon, characterized the lagging last days of Tuscaloosa summer in September. 

Even though there was no sun visible in the sky, there was something new under the sun indeed. 

Prior to the game, women on both teams stood together and raised cards declaring “Show The Red Card To Racism,” an extension of unity and anti-racism messages that college athletes have proclaimed all summer. That was followed by the playing of the national anthem, during which some players knelt — approximately a half-dozen on each squad. Other players, Alabama and Tennessee, stood with hands on the shoulders of their kneeling teammates .

If there had been isolated protests of this type involving Alabama athletes before, this was the first ever in terms of multiple participants. (Other SEC soccer games on this opening weekend have also seen some players kneeling.) There was no discerning booing and displeasure in the crowd, which, as noted, consisted largely of the players’ family and friends  

“Our message to the team was, ‘You are adults, and if you have a personal opinion, we support your right to express it,'” Alabama coach Wes Hart said after his team’s 3-1 victory. “I didn’t try to make too much out of it, and my approach will be to continue to go forward with mutual respect and love for each other.”

”Personally, I stood but I support and respect all the players that kneeled,” said Riley Mattingly of Alabama, the game’s star with two goals. “It’s pretty clear that we live in a broken world. If I had one thing to say, it’s that we should be more like Jesus and love one another.”

Following the game, UA player Taylor Morgan issued a statement on social media regarding comments generated by a Tidesports.com photograph of kneeling players.

”My choice to kneel before today’s game was one of the easiest decisions that I’ve ever had to make,”Taylor said on her Twitter account @taylormorgz . “By kneeling, it was in no way meant as a disrespect to the flag nor the military (which) both my father and brother are a part of. In fact, I did this for them. I did this for the millions of African Americans like them that are being oppressed. By taking a knee alongside the number of athletes that have done this across the country, I am committing to help with us being the change for the future generations of this team, this athletic program and this country. I will use my platform that I have worked hard to earn in a way that will be seen and heard. I am black but I am mixed. I recognize my privilege and will use it to support those who lack it. In the end, my actions are not meant to disrespect the flag, but instead (are) fighting for what is right and that is and always will be that black lives do matter. This fight against systemic racism is far from over but I can assure you that change is coming and I will be a part of making sure it does.”

Unity displays have been fairly common at college football games so far this season, although football players are generally not on the field for the paying of the national anthem.

The game itself was a solid start for Alabama’s 2020 season, pushed back and shortened by coronavirus restrictions. (Mask use and social distancing were not unanimous among the crowd, but were in fairly widespread use.)

”We got off to a great start, really aggressive, and then some of that nervous energy started to wear off and we lost our legs a little bit,” Hart said. “But our substitutes came in and did a great job. 

“Was it perfect? No. But that’s understandable in a first game.”

Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt 

Cecil Hurt