Basketball sea­son is back and most Clark Countians — like most Kentuckians — love to fol­low their beloved University of Kentucky Wildcats. I’m shar­ing an arti­cle I wrote in January for the Winchester Sun that remains one of my favorites. 


A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece that was high­ly crit­i­cal of the University of Kentucky bas­ket­ball pro­gram and col­lege bas­ket­ball in gen­er­al. That piece was most­ly about the adverse effects on the game of the so-called “one-and-done” phe­nom­e­non that has turned the UK and many of the oth­er élite pro­grams into revolv­ing doors for future NBA prospects.

I was crit­i­ciz­ing the sys­tem and the adults who are in charge of it. This week I’d like to dis­cuss the stu­dent-ath­letes who participate.

I think fans — myself includ­ed — some­times for­get that these young men (and women, although we’re talk­ing here about the men’s pro­gram) who play a sport are bare­ly out of high school. They were all the stars of their teams through­out their pre-col­le­giate careers. They have been told they will one day be NBA stars. They have set high goals for them­selves and expect to meet them.

Can we fault them if they see their short time play­ing bas­ket­ball for the University of Kentucky as lit­tle more than a brief inter­lude on the path to fame and rich­es? I think not.

It’s not their fault that our cul­ture pays rewards to pro­fes­sion­al ath­letes that far exceed their val­ue to soci­ety. Like any col­lege stu­dent who choos­es a career path for the div­i­dends it will pay lat­er, these young men are tak­ing advan­tage of oppor­tu­ni­ties placed in front of them. I will not con­demn them for that.

This year’s edi­tion of the UK bas­ket­ball team was wide­ly and pub­licly maligned for some­thing that had noth­ing to do with what hap­pens on the bas­ket­ball court after the ball tips off.

On Saturday, Jan. 9, the play­ers and coach­es knelt dur­ing the play­ing of the nation­al anthem before a game at Florida. Judging by the reac­tion of many Kentuckians, you would have thought they had com­mit­ted treason.

I can’t under­stand that men­tal­i­ty. I think the source of this notion has to do with con­fus­ing social norms with moral imperatives.

Who decides what is con­sid­ered prop­er and respect­ful and what is not? In my life­time, I’ve seen these stan­dards evolve. When I was grow­ing up, wear­ing a hat or cap while eat­ing was con­sid­ered rude. Remaining seat­ed when a per­son enters a room was deemed to be dis­re­spect­ful. Today, those old stan­dards are rou­tine­ly ignored.

Yet I don’t see any­one writ­ing screeds about the din­ing room at Golden Corral being full of dis­re­spect­ful men in caps.

Why do we place such a high empha­sis on social norms that are vac­u­ous of inher­ent meaning?

The phe­nom­e­non of ath­letes kneel­ing while the nation­al anthem plays has been going on for sev­er­al years. NFL quar­ter­back Colin Kaepernick famous­ly knelt dur­ing the anthem before pre­sea­son games in 2016. The ensu­ing back­lash like­ly cost Kaepernick his pro foot­ball career.

Various oth­er indi­vid­ual play­ers and teams in sev­er­al sports have since engaged in sim­i­lar demon­stra­tions. What do these protests have in com­mon? They are most­ly about the treat­ment of minori­ties in America, and most of the par­tic­i­pants have been black.

Could that have any­thing to do with the reac­tion to them?

And what’s so bad about kneel­ing, any­way? People kneel for roy­al­ty as a show of respect. When I watch these play­ers kneel, it does not look like dis­re­spect to me.

When black pro­tes­tors and their allies take to the streets in protest, they are round­ly crit­i­cized. When they stage peace­ful demon­stra­tions, they are called dis­re­spect­ful. How can they express their frus­tra­tion with­out being cas­ti­gat­ed for it?

Perhaps if they seek their crit­ics’ approval, they should try break­ing into and trash­ing the U.S. Capitol building.

The truth is, as a mid­dle-class white man, I have no idea what it’s like to feel pow­er­less against insti­tu­tion­al forces that mar­gin­al­ize me. Because those forces most­ly work in my favor. If I thought I had no oth­er recourse than to stage a protest — peace­ful or not — I can’t tell you what I’d do.

But I can tell you what I’m doing now. I’m lis­ten­ing. When peo­ple are in pain, we must listen.

I applaud the young men who took a brave stand. I’m proud of them. And I’m lis­ten­ing to them.

This arti­cle appeared in The Winchester Sun on Friday, January 22, 2021.

  • Pete Koutoulas

    Pete is an IT pro­fes­sion­al work­ing in Lexington. Formerly of Campton, he and his wife have lived in Winchester since 2015. Pete is a for­mer week­ly news­pa­per pub­lish­er and for­mer colum­nist for the Winchester Sun. These days, when not work­ing he can often be found on his back porch read­ing or writ­ing, in the back­yard tend­ing to his toma­to plants, or put­ter­ing around in his garage or work­shop. Reach Pete at pete@wincitynews.org.