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When you're the University of Kentucky basketball program, and your current season began with a 1-6 start for the first time since 1926, the last thing you need is an off-court distraction.

Especially when you've sort of, kind of begun to turn things around by winning your first three Southeastern Conference games heading into Tuesday's 9 p.m. visit (ESPN) from Alabama.

But another distraction is just where UK finds itself as its passionate Big Blue Nation fan base seems more than a little divided over the Wildcats' decision to kneel, all coaches included, during the playing of the National Anthem just prior to UK's 76-58 road win at Florida on Saturday.

Not long after that game a Laurel County, Kentucky, sheriff and jailor caused quite a stir by taking to Facebook to invite folks to a Sunday "burning party" of UK memorabilia.

Posted Sheriff John Root on Facebook: "I honestly can't believe a team from Kentucky (the Hillbilly State) took a knee to our National Anthem with the American flag displayed."

Added jailor Jamie Mosley, supposedly referring to the police, given that Saturday was also National Law Enforcement Day: "I back the real team in blue."

This also came from Root's post: "Until we get a real man to lead the cats and a real team, you will not see me back in no UK junk."

If you think the Wildcats were completely caught off-guard by this backlash, you'd be wrong.

Said senior transfer Olivier Sarr, who actually grew up in France, during a Monday Zoom call: "We understood our gesture would have consequences. We knew some people would be mad or pissed at what we did. But we just want people to understand that it's just a peaceful way to protest in a way we can use our platform."

There are valid philosophical arguments on both sides. The name on the front of UK's basketball jerseys still says Kentucky. Whatever the players think of race relations in America, on the basketball court they represent the school more than themselves.

As anyone who has lost a job in recent months for posting a comment on social media that may have been viewed as offensive by their employer can attest, free speech doesn't mean free of consequences. But NBA superstar LeBron James was also right when he said of last week's violent demonstration in Washington, D.C., "We live in two Americas."

And neither America appears to be trying too hard to understand the other. A fair chunk of white America has no understanding or appreciation for the lifelong obstacles of growing up Black in this country, everything from poverty to prejudice to substandard education to heightened health issues. Similarly, much of Black America doesn't understand why it's offensive to many folks, particularly older white Americans, to watch someone kneel during the National Anthem.

It's become a problem with no solution, as if we're all constantly navigating an uneasy truce that's shattered whenever national events such as the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor ignite understandable rage and frustration.

Few in Chattanooga understand this societal tug-of-war better than Chattanooga Boys and Girls Club senior manager Orlando Lightfoot.

A member of the University of Idaho's athletic Hall of Fame, Lightfoot, the City High product, was once recruited by former UK coach Eddie Sutton in the late 1980s. He played professionally in Europe for more than a decade.

"This isn't about the American flag or the military," said Lightfoot of the protests. "But there are two different Americas, and while we've (Black America) come a long way in 200 years, there's still a long way to go. I feel like we should let people express themselves as they see best as long as it's done in a non-violent way.

"Think about this: If a political science major was expressing these views instead of an athlete, there wouldn't be such a backlash. It would just be a student expressing his opinion. But they're all students, athletes and non-athletes."

Regarding athletes representing their universities more than themselves, Lightfoot added, "Those athletic scholarships are the last option to get out of a horrible situation for a lot of young Black athletes. It's all or nothing. We understand that. If I hadn't had the advantage of my scholarship to Idaho, I don't know whether I'd be here or not.

"But for a lot of kids from tough backgrounds, you're not just representing your school. You're representing your community and your family and community and family always comes first."

This isn't easy for anyone, be they athlete, coach or fan. Athletes want to be seen as more than athletes. Coaches want their athletes to feel comfortable and accepted by their fans for more than statistics or won-lost records. Fans mostly want to be entertained without being reminded of the uncomfortable complexities of racial injustice and inequality. Fair or not, sports was once a distraction from the real world. Now it's a mirror of it.

For his part, UK coach John Calipari said, "These kids are good kids. They care about this country, and all the other stuff. I want to listen to what they're saying."

We all need to listen. Carefully. Closely.

"This is a great country," said UK freshman Isaiah Jackson. "I feel like — and we feel like — minorities and stuff don't have equal rights like everybody else. That's what we're protesting, and that's why we kneel."

And college fans everywhere need to strongly consider that if these student-athletes sense they'll be made to feel unwelcome for kneeling or protesting at School A, they'll swiftly move on to another school that readily accepts, if not outright embraces, their chosen method of peaceful protest.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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