COLLEGE PARK, MD — With the Polar Vortex raging outside, a small crowd of diehard women’s basketball fans gathered in the Xfinity Center on Thursday night to watch a Big Ten conference showdown between the Wisconsin Badgers and the hometown Maryland Terrapins. At the end of warm-ups — scored by Grease and ABBA soundtracks — the opposing teams gathered briefly by their benches, then casually formed parallel lines on the court as the audience rose to its feet and placed hands on hearts.
But one player, Wisconsin senior Marsha Howard, never left the sidelines. She took a seat alone on the Badgers sideline, put her elbows on her thighs, bowed her head, and silently said a prayer for the entirety of the national anthem. Her actions are quiet, peaceful, and respectful, but make no mistake: This is a protest.
“I’m using my platform to raise awareness of injustice, inequality, and the blind spot of racism that still exists in today’s society,” Howard, a 6’0″ forward who leads her team in scoring, told ThinkProgress.
Two and a half years ago, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem at a preseason NFL game as a way to protest police brutality and systemic racism. His protest sparked intense backlash across the nation. But it also sparked a movement. According to ThinkProgress research in 2017, more than 3,500 people across the world joined Kaepernick in protesting racism during the national anthem, peaking in the fall of 2017 after President Donald Trump attacked Kaepernick and other NFL players who were taking a knee, calling anyone not standing during the anthem a “son of a bitch.”
But over the past 12 months, the movement has morphed and most of the protests during the anthem have subsided. At the end of the 2018-19 NFL regular season, only two NFL players — Panthers safety Eric Reid and Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills — were still taking a knee.
Howard, a Chicago native who has seen siblings and cousins impacted by systemic oppression and gun violence, has experienced this dwindling firsthand.
When she first heard about Kaepernick’s protest, she was in an apartment on campus with other black basketball players — including men’s basketball star and outspoken activist Nigel Hayes. They began talking about the racism they’d experienced, not only growing up, but also right there in Madison. After all, Wisconsin is a predominately white institution (PWI) — 76 percent of the students at the school are white Americans, while only two percent are black.
As black students with a sizable platform, they decided to take a stand.
In 2016, she and a few other black teammates stood behind the rest of the team and locked arms during the national anthem. (Hayes and a few members of the men’s team did the same thing that season.) Last year, Howard and her teammate, 2018 graduate Cayla McMorris, decided to take things a step further, and officially sit out during the national anthem. However, because Morris’s family was concerned about the backlash she might receive for protesting, Howard stayed with her in the tunnel during the anthem, so their protest wasn’t as visible.
But everything changed when the Badgers played Iowa last February. Because of the way Iowa’s arena was set up, it wasn’t feasible for them to remain in the tunnel during the anthem. So, Howard sat by herself on the bench during the anthem instead. Word of her protest reached Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who attacked Howard’s patriotism in a tweet, and directed his constituents to “exprress” outrage to the Wisconsin coach and administrators.
Iowa constituents asked me why a starter for Wisconsin women Bb wld not be patriotic enuf to stand for natl anthem song today /ASK THE WISCONSIN COACH/ Exprress outrage to university
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) February 19, 2018
The incident certainly increased the profile of Howard’s protest, and opened her up to much more criticism. But it didn’t deter her.
This year, Howard continues to sit alone and bow her head during the Star Spangled Banner before every game.
Howard says she has continued her protest in part because she feels a responsibility to represent other black students on campus, since there are so few of them. She wants them to know that she’s representing them.
“I want to be there for the [black Wisconsin students], and let them know that I’m speaking up for us,” she said.
In 2017, Howard and other minority athletes at Wisconsin hosted a student union, where they met with other black students around campus to hear about what they were dealing with on a daily basis. It was an invaluable opportunity to step outside of the student-athlete bubble.
During that union, Howard was appalled by the stories she heard: One of her teammates had been called the n-word on campus; some black students reported receiving racist hate mail at their dorm rooms; one even told a story about someone sliding a rope underneath their door.
Most of those students don’t have a platform, don’t have a way to have their voices and concerns heard and taken seriously. That’s why Howard feels so strongly about continuing her protest.
Thankfully, critics like Grassley have been few and far between. Howard said she has received an immense amount of support from her teammates, coaches, and the athletics staff on campus. They all beam with pride when talking about her, including head coach Jonathan Tsipis. When she told her coach and media relations staffers that she planned to protest, they didn’t try to stop her. Instead, they reached out to employees at the university who could help provide her with the support she might need. Her teammates — many of whom are white — have her back as well.
“Marsha, she’s always very passionate. And we do everything we can to support her,” guard Kendra Van Leeuwen said. “When she wanted to do it, it was something we all accepted, and we were right behind her with it. She’s just very proud of it, and I’m so proud of her for it.”
Most of the athletes who began protesting racism during the national anthem along with Kaepernick have moved on. But Howard has no plans to stop her protest any time soon.
“Change doesn’t come overnight,” she said. “So, as long as things are still the way they are, then yeah, I’ll continue to protest.”