How Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart responded to fans upset about team kneeling during anthem

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON – In the days following the Kentucky men’s basketball team’s decision to kneel during the national anthem before a game at Florida on Jan. 9, UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart’s university email was flooded with complaints from fans.

Four days after the team’s controversial protest, Barnhart sent a form response to the hundreds of fans who had emailed him their thoughts on the issue.

“Thank you for taking the time to send an email regarding the team’s decision to kneel during the national anthem,” Barnhart wrote in an email distributed by Shellee Hein, Barnhart’s executive assistant. “Your interest in our program is appreciated and your feedback is valued. The comments we have received have been both positive and negative.

“My faith is the most important thing in my life, and it is my faith that ensures that I extend grace to those with whom I might not agree. While I will always stand for the national anthem, I respect the First Amendment rights of those who choose to express themselves differently.”

More than 200 people emailed Barnhart between the team’s protest Jan. 9 and when the response email was sent Jan. 13. Of that group, only six emails voiced support for the decision to kneel during the anthem.

The emails were obtained by The Courier Journal through the state’s open records law.

Barnhart’s response is the first public acknowledgement of his personal feelings about the basketball team’s protest. He closed the email by referring fans to the joint statement he had issued with UK president Eli Capilouto on the night of the protest:

“A value we all hold dear in our country is the right of free speech and self-expression. 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.”

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Why Kentucky basketball team kneeled

In the wake of the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol from supporters of former President Donald Trump on Jan. 6, Kentucky players decided as a group to kneel during the national anthem before the Jan. 9 game at Florida. In subsequent interviews, players pointed to the goal of promoting racial equality as being a key motivator. Freshman forward Isaiah Jackson said the image of a noose hanging outside the Capitol during the riot was particularly impactful on the team.

Players asked Coach John Calipari shortly before the game to kneel with them, and the Hall of Fame coach agreed to, though he still held his hand over his heart during the anthem while kneeling.

While many on social media voiced support for the team’s demonstration, many of the most vehement reactions were intensely critical.

The sheriff and jailer in Laurel County posted a video to Facebook of them burning UK T-shirts. The Knox County Fiscal Court adopted a resolution asking Gov. Andy Beshear and members of the state legislature to reallocate tax funds given to the University of Kentucky in response to the team's protest. Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, delivered an emotional address on the Senate floor, saying he was "hurt" by the team's actions because of his family's ties to the military.

The vast majority of the emails sent by fans to Barnhart in the immediate wake of the protest echoed Stivers’ comments.

“This was disrespect for our flag and a slap in the face to all military veterans who have fought for the right of the right of all for freedom of speech,” one fan wrote.

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Several fans, including the one quoted above, included a link in their emails to a 2016 video of then Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams inviting military veterans to speak to his team as an illustration of why he felt it was essential for players to stand for the anthem.

“When the anthem is played, we're going to stand like grown men,” Williams says in the video.

Those fans took particular issue with Calipari not directing players to stand for the anthem, as Williams had, and then kneeling alongside his team.

“If (the) coach can’t stand for our country we don’t need him,” one emailer wrote. “Fire him and find someone patriotic.”

While many fans expressed disappointment that they could not contact Calipari directly – he does not have a university email address posted on the athletic department’s website as Barnhart does – they encouraged Barnhart to share their sentiments.

Whether or not that happened is unclear, but Calipari obviously understood the gist of many of the complaints by the time he went on his weekly radio show two days after the Florida game and fielded questions from reporters about the backlash the next day.

“Half of these kids come from military families," Calipari said then. "... This had nothing to do with military. They had all the stuff that was going on, and they felt like they needed to do something."

In response to a question from The Courier Journal about the backlash on Jan. 13, Calipari said the team had picked “probably not a real good time” to make the statement due to the current political climate, but he said he was not calling the players’ decision a mistake when asked to clarify those comments.

Still, Calipari took criticism from the opposite side of the spectrum in the following days for appearing to walk back his support of the team’s protest.

Yahoo Sports blog post criticizing Calipari for those comments, which said the coach had "failed his players" and "failed himself," was widely circulated on social media, leading Calipari to tweet an all-caps message reaffirming his support for his players. The story did not include Calipari's clarification that he did not think kneeling was a mistake.

At least one UK player took issue with the criticism of Calipari.

"Coach Cal loves his players," sophomore forward Jacob Toppin said when asked about the reaction to Calipari's comment. "He treats us like we’re his sons, so he’s never going to be against us. He’s always for us, and he’s always supporting us no matter what it is. That was nonsense. He’s definitely helped us through all of this; he’s definitely been there through all of this."

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Calls to fire John Calipari

It was Calipari’s support that particularly irked many of the fans who emailed Barnhart.

Dozens called for Barnhart to fire Calipari. Several others advocated for the players’ scholarships to be revoked. A few wrote that Barnhart should lose his job too.

While many of the emailers tried to use a civil tone outlining their own personal connection to the anthem, many others included overtly racist language.

Most of the emailers wrote they were no longer supporting the team. One message asking for a refund on the deposit on football season tickets was forwarded to the UK ticket office. Others threatened to follow the lead of the Laurel County sheriff and jailer in burning their UK gear.

Barnhart’s response to all the messages was the same.

“While I realize It might not resolve your concerns, I hope that it offers some perspective,” Barnhart wrote.

A handful of emailers thanked Barnhart for taking the time to respond, but others were not satisfied with the stock letter.

Among the fans upset with the response was one who had emailed a long criticism of the basketball team’s performance that did not actually include any reference to the anthem protest. Instead, he took issue with Calipari’s offense and recruiting strategy, concluding the Hall of Fame coach “has failed us.”

Still, Barnhart’s form letter was sent in response.

“Ms. Heins, You didn’t even read my concern,” that emailer responded to the Barnhart letter sent by Hein. “A total lack of attention to detail and another reason you have lost me as a fan.”

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Capilouto was copied on many of the emails. At least one emailer copied members of UK’s Board of Trustees on his complaint.

University spokesman Jay Blanton responded to that message from the president’s account with more insight on the school’s position.

“Our players and coaches were utilizing their First Amendment rights to free speech and self-expression as part of concerns they have expressed about a number of societal issues,” Blanton wrote. “That right is one we all cherish. Our players also understand that while they have the right to express themselves, others share that right as well. Some people will be supportive. Many, though, will be deeply opposed to not only what they are expressing but how they have chosen to do so.

“In that respect, this is an important learning process for these young students, who are learning both the freedom and power that comes with being public figures as well as the responsibility and the attention that goes with it as well.”

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com; Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ