Vermont college athletes featured in new Nike ad

Published: Jul. 31, 2020 at 6:14 PM EDT
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COLCHESTER, Vt. (WCAX) - A statement for racial justice by a Vermont college basketball team that was seen as controversial at the time is now being celebrated in a national television commercial. Our Ike Bendavid spoke with one of the St. Michael's College graduates in the commercial.

This didn't happen overnight. Coaches and several players on the St Michael's College men's basketball team knelt during the national anthem before a game three years ago to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, that activism is getting national attention-- featured in a Nike ad.

An inspirational ad that is an epic with the editing. Nike's new "You Can't Stop Us" ad sends a myriad of messages from overcoming adversity to rallying together.

About halfway through, you see NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee and to the right of the split-screen, you see four players from the St. Michael’s College basketball team doing the same thing.

"Even if we were not in it, it's a very strong commercial with a strong meaning," said Jaylen Hall, who graduated from St. Michael's College in 2019.

Hall is one of the former St. Mike's players in the commercial. The Chicago native says when he moved to Vermont, he experienced culture shock in the predominately white state. In 2017 when Hall was a junior, he was one of four players on the team along with the coaches who knelt during the anthem during an exhibition game against UVM. The rest of the players remained standing but locked arms in solidarity.

“A lot of people are seeing it like as present-day when we actually did this three years ago,” Hall said.

The players said at the time-- like many other people who kneel during the anthem-- that it was not a protest against the flag or military but to ensure that all marginalized communities are heard.

In that game, you could hear members of the crowd booing while others applauded.

Hall points to actions like his kneeling and protests that have sparked a nationwide debate about race in America that have made it more acceptable. Just this week, NBA players knelt before their game.

“Kneeling now is more-- easier to do than it was back then. There wasn’t a lot of positive support back then,” Hall said.

"They took that knee before it was widely accepted. That-- that was something we were all in favor of and they paid a little bit of a price for that," said Skyler Nash, a member of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance and a former UVM basketball player.

Nash was on the court when those St. Mike's players knelt.

He points to change that has occurred in support of racial justice, including Nike diving in with its most recent ad. But he says the work is not done.

"Still more work to do. We can't get complacent," Nash said.

As for Hall, he reflects on being on the national stage just a few years later.

“Looking back at it, I hope that we made Kaep proud because he is the one that started this,” Hall said. “To be side by side with him on the commercial for something so big, something civil-- it really means a lot to me.”

I talked with St. Mike’s athletic director. He says it’s surreal that the former athletes are being recognized and points to the increased awareness for peaceful protesting for social justice.

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