Basketball Player Ariyana Smith Says Protest ‘Last Resort’

Members of the Knox College women’s basketball team hold hands to show solidarity with teammate Ariyana Smith on Wednesday during the national anthem before their game against Monmouth College. Smith was suspended from the team, then reinstated, after a demonstration before a game last Saturday. CHRIS ZOELLER/ The Register-Mail

Note: On Wednesday, December 3, members of the Knox College women’s basketball team showed solidarity with Ariyana Smith by holding hands up together in the “hand-up, don’t shoot” pose at the beginning of the national anthem before their game against Monmouth College.

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GALESBURG — Ariyana Smith is a 19-year-old African-American woman. A junior and integrated international studies major at Knox College. And a forward on the women’s basketball team.

Last week Smith decided to be something else.

“It was after our game last Tuesday against Rockford College,” Smith said. “We played at home and after the game we were at one of the players’ apartments, and I was watching my Twitter feed and seeing pictures from Ferguson. People being tear-gassed. People being arrested.

“I saw people putting themselves out on that line. Standing up to call attention to the fact black lives matter. And I decided it was time to put myself on that line, too. It was time for me to stand up and be counted.”

Smith followed through with her plan — a roughly five-minute protest before the start of Knox’s game at Fontebonne University in Clayton, Missouri. Her decision to first raise a clenched fist, then put both hands above her head, then kneel before the American flag before collapsing at end of the national anthem drew swift response from the college’s administration.

First, according to Smith, Knox Athletic Director Chad Eisele suspended her indefinitely following a Monday conference call. That suspension was cut down to one game, then discarded late Tuesday afternoon.

In the wake of the news of her reinstatement to the basketball team, Smith stayed inside the ABLE Center for Black Culture and told how she came to the decision to protest and detailed the fallout in its aftermath.

A Greater World

Smith’s decision to protest before the start of the game was firmly entrenched in her mind by the time she went to sleep late last Tuesday.

“Our next game was scheduled to be played in Clayton, Missouri,” Smith explained. “Our athletic director had come to us before the game against Rockford and said he didn’t know whether the game would be played there or at a neutral site or at Knox.

“So the recognition of Ferguson was already there. He said there were some concerns about our safety. Ferguson was on everyone’s mind so it made sense, once I found out we were going to Missouri, to make my demonstration there.”

The night before the game Smith told three people of her plans — a friend from the University of Missouri who was organizing protests, her sister and her roommate.

“I only told my roommate that I planned to protest,” Smith said. “I didn’t tell her exactly what I was going to do.”

After Smith collapsed on the ground and lay in protest, she said Knox head coach Emily Cline approached her and asked her to stop so the game could start. Smith declined to leave before the end of her demonstration.

“Coach Cline was angry with me. That much was clear,” Smith said. “I made the decision that I wouldn’t play in the game. I went to the locker room. At halftime, coach Cline didn’t look at me. After the game, she didn’t look at me.

“The only thing she said was that I would have to meet with her Monday morning.”

Smith felt the Knox College women’s basketball team’s coaching staff and the college administration should have expected some kind of demonstration.

“How could we — as informed college students and just people in general — be expected to go to Missouri and have everybody act like everything is OK and there was nothing else going on in the greater world?” she said.

“As an athletic department we hold ourselves to a higher commitment — we are representatives of excellence. But I have to be honest. The way we collectively conduct ourselves is anything but excellent.”

Silence and Pacification

Smith’s decision to protest before the start of Saturday’s game against Fontebonne crystalized when she saw peaceful protestors in Ferguson. But that was not her only motivation.

She said she was tired of “keeping up appearances.”

“Our nickname is the Prairie Fire — but on our campus you can clearly see the old Siwash emblems. A Siwash tomahawk sits in our athletic director’s office,” Smith said. “Siwash is clearly known as a racist term. Yet, there it still is, obviously still used and recognized.”

Smith then recounted a more personal revelation that directly impacted her decision to act before Saturday’s contest.

“In the fall, I was walking down a hallway and there were two baseball players standing there and one of them looked at me and said ‘Jigaboo.’ And the other player laughed and said, ‘What did you say?’ I was in complete shock. I didn’t even know what to say.”

Smith sent an email addressed to every coach with a listed contact in the athletic department.

“I got a short email back from the athletic director. But no one came to speak with me about it. No one came to find out if I was OK. It was a situation no one wanted to deal with.”

Smith wasn’t hurt by the name-calling.

“There are always going to be people out there like that,” she said. “What hurt me was lack of response from the people who are my peers, people supposed to be my role models, my mentors. They hear words directed at me historically meant to harm. Historically meant to demean. Historically meant to silence and de-legitimize. And to have no one follow up and say ‘Hey, are you OK?’ That was what hurt me.

“It’s not the racists. It’s the people who say they know better. The people who say they want to do better. And when they are confronted with an opportunity to show they care, they look away. The response is silence. The response is pacification.”

Two Responses

Over the weekend Smith learned she had a 7:45 a.m. Monday meeting in Eisele’s office.

“We had practice scheduled for 8 a.m., so I was thinking ‘Wow. That will be a quick meeting.’ And I didn’t know what to expect.”

Eisele was out of town and took part in the meeting over speaker phone. Cline and assistant trainer Lexi Vernon attended the meeting.

“Right away, Chad Eisele asked me to justify leaving the team,” Smith said. “He said that the protocol in the past was if a player left a team before or during a game that they could be suspended indefinitely from athletic activities. Then he said there was such a thing as a purposeful protest and he said he wanted to give me a chance to explain myself.”

Smith said she became angry.

“I said, ‘Chad, that is an insulting question.’ I said it loud. And then I told him to make the call. I repeated that several times. Then he told me I was suspended indefinitely and they would get back to me on Thursday with the length of the suspension.”

Smith said her coach “just kind of smirked at me.”

“I walked out and Lexi Vernon was walking next to me and I looked at her and said, ‘You are the only witness to this. When they ask you what just happened in there, are you going to tell the truth?’ If I had to do it over again, I would have had someone in there with me.”

Following Wednesday’s campus-wide meeting to discuss how decisions were reached regarding Smith’s protests, Knox College Associate Vice President and Chief Communications Officer Megan Scott declined to speak about the specifics of the meeting between the coach, athletic director and Smith.

Scott said the decision to suspend Smith “for one game” was “communicated by the athletic director’s office to Knox President Teresa Amott.”

“The decision to suspend Ariyana for one game was based on past procedures and was totally based on her decision to leave the court and not participate. At that time it was clear the decision would be reviewed. Once Ariyana’s motivations were understood and meetings were held with coaches and players, the suspension was lifted.”

Amott echoed that message during Wednesday’s campus-wide meeting. She said the college had no desire to turn away from the issue and understood Smith’s decision to protest drew both widespread support and condemnation from the student body, faculty and staff and alumni.

Ariyana’s Message

Smith isn’t sure if she will return to the Knox College women’s basketball team.

“I left the athletic director’s office and I walked over to the front doors of the gym. It was 7:52 a.m. in the morning. My meeting had lasted seven minutes.

“I stood there. I just stood there asking myself, ‘Is anybody going to see me once more? Is anyone going to see me at all.”

Cline asked Smith to leave and after the player declined, the coach called and asked security to escort her from the athletic facilities.

“After my teammates found out I was suspended, we met together here in ABLE and we all just talked for a long time,” Smith said. “Each player talked about how she felt about what I did. It was great to just sit and talk about things — about how they felt and their reaction to my protest. We just started talking in a way we hadn’t before.”

That was Smith’s goal all along.

“I laid my body on the ground and held up that game. That was a last resort. That’s what I had — a last resort. The point of Ferguson, of talking about what happened to Mike Brown, all of it, is that you can’t separate what happened to Mike Brown and the systematic racial injustice — or the systematic injustice in general.

“It’s a fact that I have to be asked if what I did was a purposeful demonstration. I have to explain myself. The fact that I even have to explain that… Well, you can fill in the blank.”

For Smith, Ferguson is simply a point of departure. And she said Knox College has failed to make that departure in any meaningful way.

“Ferguson is salient moment,” she said. “Ferguson is the spark to get us to talk and to listen. I laid down because I felt like the people around me weren’t listening. Not just to me. But I think people need to understand that sometimes it takes peaceful protest. Peaceful disruption.

“I’m a basketball player and what I said Saturday is there are things going on in this world that are more important than basketball games. I hope by the end of this, people can see where I’m coming from.”