Hundreds of athletes pressed a knee against the concrete near the north rotunda of Ohio Stadium on Tuesday evening.
They held for nine minutes in somber silence.
Known as “Kneel for Nine,” the demonstration emerged in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died when a white police officer kept his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes during an arrest in Minneapolis last week.
The incident set off a wave of protests across the country over racism and police brutality. Ohio State’s athletes knelt outside the iconic stadium in an effort to show solidarity with Floyd’s family.
The idea was born during a recent dinnertime conversation between Tuf Borland, a linebacker for the Buckeyes, and his girlfriend, Asha Wallace, an athletic training intern with the school.
Following Floyd’s killing, Borland asked Wallace how he could help raise public awareness about the treatment of black Americans.
Both are from Bolingbrook, Illinois, a suburb southwest of Chicago, but recount different experiences with racism. Borland is white. Wallace is black.
She suggested a “Kneel for Nine” demonstration similar to what her cousin, Jay English, had organized in Milwaukee, where he works as a youth pastor.
When OSU football coach Ryan Day convened with his team’s leadership council, he asked them how they would like to address the issues surrounding race that have gripped the nation for the past week. They had previously discussed racism and policing during team meetings inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, but they wanted to enter the public arena.
They settled on a video message that was released Monday and since garnered more than 700,000 views on Twitter. Sixteen players, along with Day, spoke about racial equality.
The following day, they took another step.
“This isn’t us trying to appoint ourselves in any position,” Borland said in an interview with The Dispatch. “But we have been fortunate enough to be given these platforms through the sport of football. What better way to use that platform than to spread awareness to an issue that’s been in this country forever.”
Athlete activism has been reignited in recent years, but instances have largely been seen among players in professional leagues.
Nearly four years ago, Colin Kaepernick, then the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, first knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality. NBA players wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warmups in late 2014 in reference to the final words uttered by Eric Garner before he died in police custody in New York.
The outcry following Floyd’s death last week has been loud enough that college athletes, some still teenagers, also have stood at the forefront of protests.
Borland estimated that about 50 football players attended the “Kneel for Nine” event on Tuesday, along with athletes in other sports, parents and administrators, including athletic director Gene Smith.
“Everyone in power positions and authority positions were completely supportive of us and what we wanted to do,” Borland said, “and basically give us the freedom to express ourselves however we felt fit.”
Before the crowd knelt, Borland stood atop a flatbed truck to give a brief address, calling on them to remember Floyd and push back against racial inequality.
Borland had been moved by conversations with Wallace and some of his black teammates since he arrived at Ohio State in 2016.
He said he had learned to listen and understand other people’s perspectives. It allowed him to speak before they knelt, as did receiver C.J. Saunders, who offered final remarks before they dispersed.
Saunders conveyed a passionate message less than 24 hours after he had been arrested for a violation of a citywide curfew while leaving a protest near campus.
“I really just thought it was important for it to come from two white players,” Borland said, “to show that no matter what the situation is, we’re always going to be there to help, support and encourage our teammates however we can in the black community in our country.”
Wallace held a similar view. In this case, she hoped messages delivered by white players might carry even further.
“As a black individual, this is something that we have fought for years,” Wallace said. “In order for there to be change, there needs to be a different voice. It almost holds more power at this point than our voices do. … Until we have someone else to represent us, then I feel like not too much of a change will be made if the same is happening over and over again.”