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Coach Bob Davie apologized to the five University of New Mexico football players who knelt during the national anthem at Saturday’s Lobos-Air Force game, saying the evening’s bizarre circumstances singled them out for undue criticism.
Athletic director Eddie Nuñez apologized to those who were offended by the five players’ actions, saying they and the athletic department must earn back those fans’ trust.
The five players, meanwhile, offered no apologies and no regrets.
“I most definitely don’t regret it at all,” senior defensive end Garrett Hughes, speaking at a news conference held on Tuesday. “I’d take a knee, if I had to, again.”
Hughes, though, did say the unexpected playing of the national anthem during an abbreviated halftime gave him and his four teammates — senior linebacker Kimmie Carson, senior safety Stanley Barnwell Jr., junior safety Michael Sewell Jr., sophomore cornerback Elijah Lilly — time only to react and not to think.
“We felt ambushed, almost,” Hughes said of the events that night. “I look up and just see a flag up there (on the video board).
“When you’re put in a position where you have a split-second to think of a decision, it basically becomes instinct. I took a knee off of my belief, but (also) off of instinct, not even having a minute to think about it.”
Davie said he fully supported the players’ actions: “They had every right to do that, legally, morally, ethically.” But the sixth-year UNM coach expressed disappointment and frustration with the circumstances that led to their protest and made impossible a unified response by the entire team.
The circumstances were these:
Because of lightning in the area of Dreamstyle Stadium before the game, there was the possibility that a scheduled 5:02 p.m. kickoff for the nationally televised game could be delayed. In order to start on time, the traditional pre-game playing of the national anthem was postponed until halftime.
After the first quarter, a 61-minute lightning delay occurred. In an attempt to get back on schedule, halftime was reduced to five minutes from the usual 20 minutes. The two teams, which otherwise would have been in their locker rooms when the anthem was played, never left the field.
Davie has said that, because of the abbreviated halftime, he, Air Force coach Troy Calhoun and referee Cooper Castleberry talked during the lightning delay and agreed the anthem should not be played. But that word did not reach the UNM band.
Davie said he didn’t know the cause of the miscommunication.
When the anthem was played, Hughes, Carson, Barnwell, Sewell and Lilly chose to kneel. Their actions have been widely criticized as disrespectful to the national anthem and to the military.
No disrespect was intended, Barnwell said, but instead solidarity with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the national anthem before a preseason game in August 2016 — protesting racial injustice in this country.
“I have a cousin that recently retired from the military,” he said. “… I know personally and I really appreciate what they do because I know how they risk their life.
“I took a knee because I stand behind what Kap was standing for, and this is my way to get this message out.”
Hughes, as well, said no disrespect was intended.
“We took a knee for something we believe in,” he said. “We took a knee to stand with Kaepernick against injustice in America right now.
“We didn’t do it to disrespect the flag. There was, honestly, no negative connotation. It was a positive protest.”
Hughes was asked to relate incidents of racial discrimination he has experienced. He declined, saying there were too many to recount.
“Racial inequality,” Lilly said, “is something that is real. … So, yeah, I wouldn’t regret (kneeling), and if it was to happen I would do it again and stand by it.”
Nuñez, speaking Monday night on his radio show, acknowledged that the playing of the national anthem had caught the players by surprise and put them in a difficult situation.
But, he said, “My apology goes out to those who we offended in this process. … We’re going to help these young men and women support whatever cause they want to, but understanding there’s (other) ways to do it.”
Davie said he was disturbed by the extremely negative reaction to players’ actions in some quarters.
“I’m disappointed in the narrative so quickly going to ‘They did this out of disrespect for the military, they did this out of disrespect for the Air Force Academy,’ that they should be taken off scholarship, (that) ‘I won’t come to another game if those players play in the game.’
“That narrative is divisive, and that narrative is hateful.”