Smith Unjustly Punished

Tyler Sloan, Editor in Chief

The national anthem filled the Fontbonne College gym before the women’s basketball game against the visiting Knox College Prairie Fire on Saturday, Nov. 29 — a common occurrence at the small Division III school situated just outside St. Louis. However, this game would be different.

As lyrics hailing the “land of the free” played, Knox College junior Ariyana Smith crossed the court to silently protest the grand jury decision to acquit police officer Darren Wilson, a white man, of the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. Smith kneeled beneath an American flag for the duration of the anthem while assuming the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture, then lay down for four and a half minutes to symbolize the four and a half hours that Brown’s body remained on the sidewalk where he was killed.

Following the demonstration, Smith was escorted from the gym while raising her fist in a Black Power salute. Head Coach of the Prairie Fire Emily Cline and Associate Coach David Elliot walked Smith out of the gym after asking her to stop her protest because it was interrupting the start of the game. Knox College Athletic Director Chad Eisele immediately suspended Smith from the team indefinitely and later revised that suspension to just one game. Cline, Elliot and Eisele are all white.

In a move reflective of the nationwide lack of institutional support for people of color, the coaches cited Smith’s “walking out on her team” as the cause for suspension, not the protest. In doing so, the coaches prioritized the significance of a Division III non-conference college basketball game over the opportunity to draw attention to the continual police brutality and the systematic oppression of Black people in the United States — actions that, to say the very least, are violent and shameful.

After receiving much-warranted negative press, Knox College, located in Galesburg, IL, released the following statement just three days later, announcing the reversal of Smith’s suspension and separating the college’s viewpoint from the action of the coaching staff:

“This past Saturday, a Knox College women’s basketball player staged a protest prior to the start of a regulation game in response to the events in Ferguson, MO. The player was suspended for one game for leaving the court and sitting out the competition. Upon review of the situation and discussion with the team, and in recognition of the larger national context, the decision was made to reverse the suspension, and the player has been invited to resume all basketball activities. The college deeply appreciates the many viewpoints expressed by the women’s basketball team and their thoughtful dialogue as we sought to arrive at a resolution that considered all perspectives.”


Where is the apology in this manufactured response for the impact of Eisele’s actions, regardless of his intentions? Where is the deep regret of the ignorance that the athletics department, which plays a vital role in this learning institution, has perpetuated by suspending a Black student-athlete? Where are the repercussions for the athletics department that wrongly suspended Smith from participating on a team for peaceful protest?

The responsibility to create a safe space for students falls on the college and who it chooses to employ. A college athletics department is not separate from the learning institution and has the same responsibility to prioritize students’ safety. The Knox College Athletics department, and by extension Knox College, failed to provide this basic guarantee.

Back at Oberlin, a large portion of the student body has expressed frustration with how the College has responded to recent events in Ferguson, New York and Cleveland. Amid protests and calls for administrative support, Oberlin Athletics has expressed solidarity with Smith in an email sent to varsity athletes, which reads:

“We cannot tell you how to feel or how to respond, but we support you. We can hear you. We can see you. And we stand with you. We are proud to be associated with students who speak up for their beliefs and for the rights of others. We heard, saw and stand with Knox College student-athlete Ariyana Smith on her decision to allow her conscience to merge with action on Dec. 3.”

The College and the Athletics department must continue to speak out and hold themselves to the highest of standards by supporting students of color in any way they can. Smith’s own words best articulate why failure to do otherwise is indicative of an issue much larger than her own temporary suspension.

“As an athletic department we hold ourselves to a higher commitment — we are representatives of excellence,” Smith said in an interview with the Galesburg Register-Mail. “But I have to be honest. The way we collectively conduct ourselves is anything but excellent.”