The Kansas State football team is, in essence, on strike. And what the players want, ultimately, is for those with a visible platform at the university to denounce racism repeatedly — and loudly — whenever it arises.
Rising senior defensive back Jonathan Alexander told The Mercury in a phone interview Saturday night that he and his teammates have held a series of virtual meetings and calls with K-State president Richard Myers, athletics director Gene Taylor and head football coach Chris Klieman since Friday. The players’ demand came in the wake of a mocking post on Twitter written Thursday by Jaden McNeil, a student at the university.
“Congratulations to George Floyd on being drug free for an entire month!” McNeil wrote in the tweet.
In a letter shared on Twitter by nearly every member of the team Saturday, players vowed not to participate in any football-related activities until the university alters its policy on racist speech and actions.
That won’t change, Alexander said, until Myers, Taylor, Klieman and others with visible positions at the university and athletics department take a stand publicly.
“What we’re saying is, ‘Just say that you guys don’t respect that. Just say that you guys don’t represent that,” Alexander said. “That’s all that we’re saying. ... We’re just wanting (K-State) to say, ‘We don’t respect his point of view.’”
Alexander has been one of the most prominent faces of the outcry against McNeil’s tweet. And it started Friday. Back home in Fort Worth, Texas, with K-State’s voluntary workouts on hold following a coronavirus outbreak among the football team, Alexander received a text from Klieman on Friday. Klieman wanted to talk. Klieman’s area of concern: How could he use his platform to make sure his players knew he had their backs?
“We respect Coach Klieman a lot for that — for reaching out to us,” Alexander said. "He reached out to a couple of us about that, so we let him know."
Alexander said he told Klieman that players were angered by McNeil’s tweet. Then, Alexander suggested a team-wide meeting.
“I was like, ‘I’d like to talk to the team about how we could use our platform and not BS around. Not just say that Black Lives Matter; how can we actually voice and use our platform?’” Alexander said.
Klieman couldn’t have been more receptive.
“After I talked to Coach Klieman, he was down,” Alexander said. “He was like, ‘Hey Jon, we can do that. When would you want to do that? When would you want to have a team meeting?’ I was like, ‘Honestly Coach, we need to go ahead and get it over with. Let’s do it right now.’ So he was like, ‘Shoot, we can do it (Saturday).’”
Out of Saturday’s meeting came the letter.
“To our family at K-State,” the letter began. “Due to the recent disparaging, insensitive and unsettling comments made by a fellow student, we as a football team, after consultation with students from campus organizations as well as students from the general student body, feel it it best for us to stand with the students.
“We are demanding that Kansas State University put a policy in place that allows a student to be dismissed for displaying openly racist, threatening or disrespectful actions toward a student or groups of students.
“We have resolved that we cannot play, practice or meet until these demands are heard and actions taken. We love Kansas State, but we must stand together and protect all students moving forward.”
During the meeting, Alexander said players put their thoughts together before penning the letter. It was similar to a letter first shared by Alexander on Friday, which carried a pair of demands, written in bold font for emphasis.
The first: “A policy against racism that will expel any student that openly displays racism on all platforms, such as social media, (at) school, (in) Aggieville and sporting events.”
The second: “We also need to see student Jaden McNeil receive strong consequences of his insensitive actions.”
Though Alexander was the first to post Friday’s letter, he emphasized he didn’t pen it. The same, he said, went for Saturday’s letter.
There’s a reason why neither letter carried signatures.
“That’s what we don’t want: We don’t want (one person getting) all the publicity,” Alexander said. “We want this to be a team thing. No one man above anyone else. We don’t want one man headlining it. We want it to say, ‘Kansas State.’ That’s what we stand up for. We don’t want, ‘This dude led the change.’”
Even so, Alexander conceded that some players had been more vocal about calling for change than others. He’s one of them, part of a group that includes fellow defensive backs Walter Neil Jr. and Tyrone Lewis along with wide receiver Joshua Youngblood.
“We were definitely the ones who took a stand and ran with it,” Alexander said. “Like, ‘It’s our time. It’s not a time to sit back.’ There’s a lot of dudes who are with us. They’re sitting back and talking. And there’s some of us who want action. We were the ones who wanted action.”
Saturday’s meeting, which featured everyone affiliated with the program, was just one of countless meetings Alexander said had taken place since Friday morning. So numerous, in fact, Alexander said he couldn’t even provide an accurate estimate.
On every large-scale call, Alexander said Myers and Taylor joined in. Myers’ involvement, specifically, delighted Alexander.
“Him and Klieman really felt the same way, and that’s why we talked with him: They’re on our side, but they want to know how to support it better,” Alexander said. “So we’re just telling them.”
Myers decried McNeil’s tweet Friday.
“The insensitive comments posted by one K-State student hurts our entire community,” Myers wrote in a statement posted on the university’s official Twitter account. “These divisive statements do not represent for the values of our university. We condemn racism and bigotry in all its forms.
"We are launching an immediate review of the university’s options. Black Lives Matter at Kansas State University and we will continue to fight for social justice."
When he first saw McNeil’s offensive tweet, Alexander said his initial reaction wasn’t nuanced.
“It was, ‘Yo, you gotta go. You gotta leave K-State,’” Alexander said.
Alexander’s views slowly have shifted.
“In talking with the president, talking with the student body, talking to educated people, they’re telling us about the First Amendment,” he said. “We’re all grown. We’re all mature. We know that he won’t leave. We know that he can’t get kicked out of Kansas State just for that. ... We’re mature enough to understand that he can’t get kicked out of Kansas State just for that comment. We’re just wanting (K-State) to say, ‘We don’t respect his point of view.’”
Alexander also questioned whether McNeil even meant what he said.
“The man is a jokester. All he wants to do is make jokes. ... We know he’s just tweeting for fame,” Alexander said. “We know that you really don’t want to fight none of us. We know that. We’re not trying to get physical with him.”
The punishment McNeil may face from the university — if any — still is uncertain.
University officials told The Mercury via email on Saturday that it does “not disclose disciplinary actions taken with students due to privacy regulations.” K-State also declined to say whether it had received complaints about McNeil in the past. In addition, the university wouldn’t comment on whether it had spoken with McNeil or America First Students — McNeil is the founder of the K-State chapter of the organization — since his tweet went viral.
“Due to federal privacy restrictions related to student records, we are unable to provide this information,” officials said.
Alexander said the football team’s end goal is clear: He wants “respect and love” to envelop the Manhattan community. He wants to change the city and the university, not the other way around.
“I had someone tell me, ‘Hey dude, you shouldn’t say that you wouldn’t want to leave Kansas State. You should threaten them with your power,'” Alexander said. “And I was like, ‘It’s not about being one up on Kansas State.’ It’s not about that. It’s not about me saying, ‘Hey, I don’t need y’all. I’ll go to a HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities). It’s not about that. What it’s about, for me, is simply respect. Don’t disrespect people. I don’t care what George Floyd did (in his life). That’s a deceased man. Let his people mourn. It shouldn’t matter about his past.”
Alexander remains upbeat that a bright future is on the horizon, helping push forward, and learn from, the nation’s divided past.
“I just pray that in Manhattan, Kan., there’s a sense of respect and love,” he said. “I want the family culture that we’ve got on the football team to spread through the whole city and that everybody will jump on board.”