University of Kentucky president Eli Capilouto and athletic director Mitch Barnhart on Monday supported the men's basketball team, which has faced backlash after players and coaches, including John Calipari, knelt before Saturday's win at Florida to protest social injustice days after rioters stormed the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Beyond the criticism the team has faced on social media, a local sheriff posted a video of him burning Kentucky T-shirts, and local officials asked state lawmakers to defund the university.
"A value we all hold dear in our country is the right of free speech and self-expression," Capilouto and Barnhart said in a joint statement. "That right for young students such as these is important, too, as they learn, grow, and find out who they are and what they believe. We won't always agree on every issue. However, we hope to agree about the right of self-expression, which is so fundamental to who we are as an institution of higher learning. We live in a polarized and deeply divided country. Our hope -- and that of our players and our coaches -- is to find ways to bridge divides and unify."
Sheriff John Root of Laurel County, Kentucky, released a video on Sunday that showed him and a jailer burning shirts that commemorated some of Kentucky's Final Four runs. The video has since been deleted, but in a Facebook post from Saturday, the sheriff wrote, "To think that a so called Coach and team would take such actions sickens me."
On his radio show on Monday in Lexington, Calipari explained why the team chose to kneel.
"It was all the images that they saw and they wanted to have their voice heard, and I said, well, 'Tell me what it's about,'" he said. "They talked to me about it. Then they said, 'We'd like you to kneel with us,' which I did. I held my heart, but I did kneel with them because I support the guys. But it wasn't about military. Six of these players come from military families. ... This wasn't about the military."
In Knox County, Kentucky, about two hours from Lexington, officials responded to the team's decision to kneel by proposing that the state defund the University of Kentucky through a resolution "to reallocate tax funding from unpatriotic recipients to hard working Kentucky [taxpayers] across this Commonwealth," according to the Corbin, Kentucky-based Times-Tribune newspaper.
Players said Monday they had anticipated the backlash.
Big man Olivier Sarr said they were using their platform as players to peacefully protest.
"I think our action speaks for itself," Sarr said. "What happened in the past few days, few weeks and even during quarantine, we just want to show support for our community and raise awareness on the things that happened lately. It comes from a place of understanding peaceful conversations and being open-minded. That's it."
Isaiah Jackson talked about the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol and referenced a noose that was seen erected outside the building.
"It was a couple of things," he said. "Like, I saw the noose. That was just -- was out of pocket. That's just something that people shouldn't do. I feel like people have their own opinions, but that was just, like, that was just out of pocket. Just breaking in is just crazy to me."