FARGO — Trey Lance and his North Dakota State teammates made a statement Saturday, one that will have an impact much deeper than the Bison's victory in their lone game of this odd college football season.
Whether that impact is good or bad depends on your view. It depends on whether you see young athletes making an important statement on social justice as a positive, or whether you want them to shut up and play football.
Judging by social media, there are plenty of Bison fans who subscribe to the latter belief.
Before NDSU's 39-28 win over Central Arkansas at the Fargodome, nearly empty of fans and stone silent because of the coronavirus pandemic, some Bison players and head coach Matt Entz made a statement in support of social justice that included the phrase "Black lives matter" in a pre-recorded video message played on the dome's video boards.
As a team,— NDSU Football (@NDSUfootball) October 3, 2020
As a family that loves one another.
It's time to learn,
And to really understand.
Above all else,
We are united together. pic.twitter.com/9b3Tn7QIxz
Immediately after, about 15 Bison players took a knee during the national anthem.
That's the same gesture taken four years ago by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, leading to him being blackballed by the league and igniting a controversy that burns to this day. Political conservatives believe kneeling during the national anthem is disrespectful.
At least momentarily, the Bison stepped from the football arena into the political one. Even if they say their message isn't about politics.
"It should be important to everyone, in my mind," Lance said. "It's not a political thing. It's a human rights thing. It's a human life thing."
Entz said after the game the team had discussed doing a video for some time. He said he was unaware some players took a knee during the anthem, saying he was focused on saying his pre-game prayer. But Entz supported his players' actions.
"The easy way to avoid criticism is to say nothing, do nothing and be nothing. I don't think that's what this program is built on," Entz said.
On the oddest Saturday in NDSU football history — with the dome eerily empty during the one game the Bison will play during a season thwarted by a global pandemic, while the team's NFL-bound quarterback was likely playing his last game in a Bison uniform — a group of young men and their coach showed that there is more to them than Xs and Os.
It is no small thing.
This isn't California. This is North Dakota, a conservative place that strongly supports a president who doesn't have high regard for matters of social justice.
Lance and wide receiver Phoenix Sproles, who are both African-American, have been particularly open about their support for Black Lives Matter on social media. So have other Bison. They participated in May's peaceful protests in Fargo. Sproles was instrumental in helping put the video together.
On Friday, Lance posted photos of the cleats he intended to wear against Central Arkansas. They had the letters "BLM" and names of African-Americans killed by police officers written on them. They also had "7" written on the heels, the uniform number of Kaepernick.
Tomorrow.— Trey Lance (@treylance09) October 3, 2020
204 Days since the death of Breonna Taylor. pic.twitter.com/DimHJb4Yj5
"I'm unbelievably thankful for our coaching staff and everything they did to support us and inform us," Lance said. "The video was really a tribute to inform people, educate people as much as we possibly could."
It included the words: "It's not about disrespecting the flag. It's about protecting one other."
The unfortunate thing is that the video played before a mostly empty stadium, with only about 500 fans in attendance. Playing it at a normal game would've had more impact.
But there is nothing normal about 2020. The desolate tailgating lots before the game. The empty concourses and blue seats during the game. The silence inside the dome when Lance was busting a long touchdown run.
Nothing seemed quite right, except for the video message.
"We stand here today."
"As a team."
"As a family that loves one another."
"And accepts each other's differences."
"And acknowledges each other's pain."
A white player, linebacker James Kaczor, said the team was open to it in hopes of making the community better. Kaczor did not kneel during the anthem, but held the hand of his "good friend" Zach Mathis, an African-American receiver.
"We're here to support our brothers. Ultimately, sin is in the world and it will be until Jesus comes back," Kaczor said. "But when it is here, all we can do is love each other and provide them hope."
The gestures will not be received warmly by all. That was evident almost immediately. One white former Bison player tweeted, "Move on TLance — don't need your Kapernick (expletive) at NDSU."
A group of 14 African-American ex-Bison pushed back by posting a Facebook message that said they were "saddened to see him attacked online this morning by some Bison fans and enthusiasts who have directed hate-filled rhetoric towards him for his decision to speak-up."
Lance said the decision to kneel, knowing it would trigger some blowback, was not a difficult one.
"I'm just continuing to raise awareness and bring awareness," he said. "From here, I just want to continue to educate as many people as I can from my platform. Continue to learn and educate myself."