LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) _ Nebraska coach Mike Riley was coming of age when protests against the Vietnam War and civil disobedience tied to environmentalism and the treatment of American Indians and migrant workers were sweeping across his home state of Oregon. The mantra of his generation was to question authority and not trust anyone under 30.
When he went to Alabama to play football for Bear Bryant in the early 1970s, Riley was in one of the hottest spots of the civil rights era and a bastion of lingering racial tension. Wilbur Jackson, the first black football player for the Crimson Tide, was his teammate.
In 1975 he returned to the West Coast to work as a graduate assistant at California, located in protest central _ Berkeley.
The 63-year-old Riley said that in his teens and early 20s he wasn’t as aware as he should have been of the magnitude of what was going on around him. In retrospect, it affected him.
“I’m very thankful for it at this time in my life,” he said.
With that personal history as a backdrop, Riley has been vocal in his support of the three Nebraska players who took a knee during the national anthem at last week’s game at Northwestern to protest police violence and injustice against Black people in the United States. The movement started with San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the NFL preseason.
Riley has embraced the national attention the act of Michael Rose-Ivey, Mohamed Barry and DaiShon Neal has received.
“We have to be prepared to be able to sit in a quiet moment and make decisions sometimes about how we’re going to handle this and what’s going to go on,” Riley said. “To me, events like this are kind of exciting.”
So would Riley himself take a knee during the anthem if a cause, whatever it may be, so moved him?
“You know, probably,” he said.
The three players have received support from campus and athletic department leadership. The fan base is split . Critics, including the state’s governor and two members of the university system’s Board of Regents, have pounced on the players for being disrespectful to the flag and those who have served in the military by not standing for the anthem. Rose-Ivey has been promised a meeting with the governor next week.
With regard to racial injustice, Riley said, “We all know this is a real thing. … I think the neat thing about what happened is everybody is talking about the issue.”
The protest issue is especially relevant in the Big Ten , where eight of the 14 teams have players on the field for the anthem rather than in the locker room, which is common in the other Power Five conferences. The topic has come up in several meeting rooms, and coaches have taken different approaches to discussing potential protests with their players.
Also last week, Michigan State players Delton Williams, Kenney Lyke and Gabe Sherrod held their right fists in the air while standing on the sideline in East Lansing. Michigan Wolverines Khalid Hill, Mike McCray, Devin Bush, Elysee Mbem-Bosse and Jourdan Lewis did the same before their game in Ann Arbor.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last four, five, six weeks. Because I am the football coach doesn’t mean I can dictate to people what they believe. I support our guys.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz he said he talked to the team’s leadership group on Sunday, a day after the Nebraska players’ protest, to get a reading on how players felt about it. At Iowa, teams are on the field for the anthem. Ferentz said he and the players “are on the same page” about keeping individual or group protests out of the football setting.
“This is my personal feeling _ it’s not a mandate _ but to me when we’re involved in a team activity, we do things the same,” he said.
Outside of football, Ferentz said he encourages his players to think independently about issues and to do as they see fit as long as they act lawfully and morally.
At Utah, where teams are in the locker room during the anthem, coach Kyle Whittingham said he discussed the issue with his players.
“It’s a free country and if you have a desire to express yourself in a way that’s not detrimental to the team, we’re not going to hold anybody back,” he said.
AP Sports Writers Luke Meredith in Iowa City, Iowa, and Kareem Copeland in Salt Lake City contributed.
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