BY MICHAEL KELLY
NISKAYUNA — For a few seconds, Osman Rasul hesitated.
Then, as “The Star Spangled Banner” continued to play, he dropped to a knee, joining several other players on the Niskayuna High School football team who kneeled prior to Thursday’s game against Guilderland.
“I did hesitate,” said Rasul, a junior. “There were a lot of thoughts racing through my mind.”
The one that won out?
“In that moment,” Rasul said, “I was like, ‘I got to stay true to what I believe in.’”
In the past couple days, as a handful of players on the Niskayuna team voiced a desire to demonstrate in some fashion during the National Anthem, Niskayuna coaches and administrators urged their players to take careful thought before committing to doing anything. A team meeting Wednesday resulted in head coach Brian Grastorf’s team deciding to lock arms during the anthem in a show of unity, but players who wanted to kneel were not discouraged.
“As long as they’ve done that with a lot of thought and passion for what they believe in,” Niskayuna High School principal John Rickert said, “it’s hard to be critical of that.”
A single Niskayuna cheerleader also kneeled before Thursday’s game.
The NFL’s batch of Week 3 games included mass demonstrations. What started a year ago with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first sitting — and then kneeling — during the playing of the anthem to protest racial injustices hit its high point after President Donald Trump said during a rally last Friday that NFL owners should fire players who don’t stand during the playing of the anthem.
“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,” is how Trump said NFL owners should react.
In a tweet the next morning, Trump uninvited the NBA’s Golden State Warriors to the White House after Stephen Curry, the team’s star, had previously said he would not attend such a celebration. Fellow NBA stars came to the defense of Curry and the Warriors, including LeBron James who referenced Trump as “U bum” in a tweet. That night, Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel during the anthem.
Sunday’s and Monday’s NFL games followed, with players from every NFL team demonstrating in some fashion. Some teams featured players kneeling, others had players lock arms and some stayed in the locker room during the anthem.
Ismail Stewart, a Niskayuna senior, said he was the one that initially brought up the idea with his teammates about doing something during Thursday’s game.
“It was my job as the one who brought it to the team to explain why we were taking a knee,” said Stewart, who is of mixed race, but describes himself as black. “The reason is there are some social injustices happening in this nation. And, yeah, OK, I’m just 16, I’m just a high school senior — but it’s my job, just like it’s anyone else’s, to be a voice and to speak against those injustices. I feel like it’s my job to speak.”
Not everyone agreed. Reaction on social media to the players who opted to kneel was mixed, with racial slurs hurled at the players in several instances. While reaction from the crowd was relatively non-existent during the anthem, one voice from the Niskayuna side of the field could easily be heard during the first half when the game halted to tend to an injured Niskayuna player.
“That’s when you should kneel,” a man shouted from the stands.
It appeared no players on Guilderland, which won 68-0, kneeled during the anthem. Niskayuna junior Dan Brownell, the Silver Warriors’ quarterback, also didn’t kneel along with the majority of his teammates.
“I stood because I wanted to honor veterans, the people that gave their lives for this country,” Brownell said. “But I told the team [before the game], I went in front of the team and told them, ‘I support you, I got your back with whatever decision you want to make.’”
After seeing several of his teammates opt to kneel, an emotional Brownell said his feelings had not changed.
“I absolutely support [them],” said Brownell, who is white. “Absolutely.”
Grastorf, a rookie head coach who graduated from Niskayuna in 2006, echoed that message. When he found out Tuesday some of his players wanted to demonstrate prior to Thursday’s game, he told them to make sure they understood why they were doing it.
“My story to them was if they have the proper why and they feel that’s what they want to do, they know that — 100 percent — I got their back,” Grastorf said.
In recent weeks, there have been scattered instances of high school and youth teams throughout the country demonstrating in some fashion during the National Anthem before sporting events. Thursday afternoon, it was reported that a high school principal in Louisiana had sent a letter to students and their parents that the school would punish athletes who do not “stand in a respectful manner” during the National Anthem.
Rickert, who said during Thursday’s halftime that he had heard in the past couple days from parents voicing support and opposition for the decision of the players who kneeled, credited his young coach’s handling of the situation.
“I think he did an incredible job throughout this,” said Rickert, who is also a professional sports agent whose clients include NFL players.
Both Rasul and Stewart said they felt supported in leading up to Thursday’s game. Each player also made a point to state the decision to kneel was not intended to show disrespect toward the U.S. military.
“I want people to know [my decision to kneel], it has nothing to do with . . . the flag and veterans,” Stewart said.
“They don’t deserve to be disrespected,” said Rasul, a son of immigrants from Afghanistan. “That’s not what my intention was; my intention is to bring up social injustices that have happened.”
Rickert said he unsure whether any Niskayuna players would continue to kneel during the season’s remaining games. Stewart said he was sure.
“This was just the start,” Stewart said.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Michael Kelly at email@example.com or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.