In the Locker Room with Maureen Coffey and Julia Birenbaum


Bryan Rubin

Seniors Maureen Coffey (left) and Julia Birenbaum

This week, the Review sat down with senior field hockey players Maureen Coffey and Julia Birenbaum to discuss their recent protest of the national anthem, their understanding of patriotism and activism in athletics.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to start kneeling during the national anthem before games?

 Julia Birenbaum: I’m from San Francisco and read about Colin Kaepernick kneeling. Some people have had really adverse reactions to it. I thought, “We have the freedom to do it, and I know Oberlin is a place that would be accepting of it, and not doing it kind of felt weird and complicit. So I proposed it to our team and to our coach. Personally, I would have done it every game, even if the team wasn’t going to do it, as long as everybody was OK with it, but we’ve done it every game. I really appreciate it, and I like it a lot, and I think we’re going to keep doing it.

Maureen Coffey: Before they play the national anthem at a lot of our away games — Oberlin doesn’t do it — they’ll sometimes have a statement, something like, “Please rise and stand for our great country that protects our freedom and values.” The more I kept hearing that, the more uncomfortable I felt with the whole concept. In light of Kaepernick’s protest and the North Carolina shootings, it just felt wrong. I love the United States. I would love to work in government. But this isn’t what U.S. values should be, and it’s hard to stand for something that doesn’t align with what you believe in.

Like Kaepernick, are you kneeling to protest police violence against Black people?

JB: That’s what I had in mind when I was doing it. It’s not an anti-cop thing. That’s not the message that I’m trying to send. It’s making people aware of unnecessary violence against Black people and the loss of Black lives.

MC: I read The Washington Post almost every day and they count —

JB: 178 Black people have been killed by police this year so far.

MC: I would just look at it again and again. It’s awful. For me, it’s absolutely about racialized violence.

JB: I think, especially within athlete spaces, a lot of people aren’t forced to think about it. By bringing this to this athlete space and to this team, we’re saying, ‘This is an important issue.’ We’re trying to make a statement about it. It doesn’t need to happen to all of us personally. It doesn’t need to affect us personally. But this is something that’s happening in our country, to people that we know, to people that we love and to our own teammates. This forces people to wonder, “What is that about?” It makes people talk about it.

MC: This conversation wouldn’t happen in a space like a Division-III field hockey game if it wasn’t for our protest. The point is to create conversations where they might not otherwise happen.

How would you respond to someone that wonders why a majority-white team is participating in this protest?

JB: You don’t have to be Black for this issue to affect you. I’m half Black. We have other Black teammates. But the majority of our team is white and is saying, “This is something that we believe is an important issue.” The job of an ally is not to take the spotlight and put it on themselves, but to raise awareness of an issue for a minority and give them a voice. We’re forcing people to talk about it. It’s the only power that we have right now in this situation. Systemic violence is embedded in our society. It’s something that you can’t just change. You have to change the way people talk about it and view it. This small thing that we’re doing is bringing it to this community and I think to not do it would be wasting a really good opportunity.

MC: As a white person, I am in a lot less danger of being written off or retaliated against for my actions. It’s the action of an ally to say, “I agree and I’m going to participate.” Not, “I agree and I’m going to sit back untouched by this situation.” You don’t have to be a person of color to be affected by this, to know it’s wrong and to know that something needs to change.

Who are you hoping to reach with this protest?

MC: In addition to the Oberlin community, I think our audience was other teams. The first time we saw someone kneel, before we had a team discussion about it, was when the Earlham College field hockey team knelt at our first game against them. I hope that our actions are making other teams think about it and talk about it. Maybe that gives someone on another team the courage to decide they want to do it too, because they aren’t OK with what’s going on.

Why do you think other Oberlin teams haven’t done public protests like this?

JB: The campus is very segregated, with athletes on North Campus a lot of the time. Sometimes it feels like the actual geographical divide of the school makes things really hard. Afrikan Heritage House and a lot of events and protests happen on a totally different part of campus, and as an athlete, your life is very connected to where your sport is played. Sometimes, as an athlete, you’re limited in ways that other students are not. I have noticed that not a lot of activism takes place in the athletic community. I think making a statement that brings awareness to an issue that’s really important or hard to talk about is also really important. It’s important to get comfortable being in uncomfortable spaces. Bringing discomfort sometimes is important because it pushes the bounds of what we can and can’t do.

Interview by Jackie McDermott, Sports editor.