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Out of Challenge Rises Opportunity

Prior to their Oct. 7 game against Delaware Valley University, members of the Albright College football team’s 24-member Student Leadership Council came together to decide how best to comport themselves during the playing of the national anthem. With  the issue being hotly contested around the country, the student-athletes agreed that they wanted their actions —whatever they might be—to reflect the mutual respect team members have for one another, as well as the value they place on their differences.

In the end, players unanimously decided to kneel during the coin toss and stand during the anthem. The day of the game, everyone honored that decision, except Gyree Durante ’20. The sophomore back-up quarterback chose to kneel for the national anthem, as well. The following Monday, Lions Head Coach John Marzka dismissed him from the team. A few days later, Marzka dismissed two more players, after learning that they had squatted rather than knelt during the coin toss, adding further fuel to the fire.

Marzka says his original decisions sprang from his belief that the three players had violated their teammates’ trust, making their continued participation with the squad impossible. “The field is my classroom,” Marzka explains. “Teamwork and leadership are the two main principles we honor, and the cornerstone of both leadership and teamwork is trust. Without trust, it’s impossible to build a cohesive unit.  That’s really the bottom line.” Nevertheless, his decisions sparked a nationwide uproar —and responses from the campus community as well—as the public at-large  were swift, divided, and in many cases, harsh. Marzka received words of support from  some and threats of bodily injury from others.

In the days that followed, however, he and other members of the administration discovered that all was not as it had originally seemed. The unanimous decision made by the football team’s Student Leadership Council had not been unanimous after all, and the consequences suffered by the players began to appear unduly harsh. “Any good administration has to look at fairness,” explains President Jacquelyn S. Fetrow, Ph.D. ’82, “and consequences must always be aligned with actions.”

As Fetrow and her Situation Leadership Team continued to evaluate facts and gather information, it became evident that the concept of shared agreement was not as strong as originally thought, and that the penalties imposed were overly severe for the amount of questioning that was taking place among members of the team. After discussing the issue with Marzka and the leadership team at length, Fetrow offered the three players reinstatement to the team. Two accepted; Durante did not. “I felt it would be pointless to go back – it would have undermined the reason I took a knee in the first place,” he explains. And although Durante is now planning to transfer to another school next semester, he is grateful for the discussions his actions have sparked. “The whole idea of the protest was to get people talking, and the fact that the College and the administration are now working to address issues of social and racial justice is wonderful.”

Other Albright students agree. Student Government Association President Jordan Winkler ’18 is grateful for the difficult but productive conversations that have taken place among faculty, students and staff in the weeks following the incident, and believes that the College will emerge from the conflict a stronger and more cohesive community. “It’s important for any college to understand its constituents and this incident has provided a valuable opportunity to align the College’s priorities with those of its students,” says Winkler.

Angela Espinoza ’19, a student representative on the College’s Council for an Inclusive, Thriving and Equitable Community (CITE-C), says the incident has elicited a great deal of soulsearching and important discussions about the need to understand and respect differing opinions. “Our country affords us freedom of speech and freedom of actions – it’s important to think about what that really means…for everyone.”

For International Student Association President Ghanshyam (Ghana) Gautam ’18, the experience has brought the importance of listening and understanding into sharper focus. “These past several weeks, I’ve seen first-hand how important it is to seek to understand someone else’s position and listen to other opinions. Learning to respect one another’s views will strengthen us as a community.”

Marzka concedes the experience has been challenging for him, his coaching staff and his team, but says he has also grown from the experience. “President Fetrow told me she looked at this incident not as a crisis, but as an opportunity for Albright,” he says, “and I believe her. The way she has handled this situation is impressive. I’ve been teaching leadership for 25 years, and I’ve learned from her.” Marzka says that after much soul-searching, he realized that the lessons of trust and ‘team before individual’ apply not only to his players but to himself. “President Fetrow pointed out to me that the players were dismissed because of a violation of trust, yet none of the three had come to me in the week before the game to express their concerns about the decision to kneel. I had to ask myself ‘Why not? Don’t they trust me?’” By joining with Fetrow in the decision to reinstate the players, Marzka says he also lived the principle that no individual – himself included – is more important than the team. “I had the opportunity to demonstrate that I truly value the team above myself and whatever position I had previously held, and with all the facts before me, I decided that reconciliation was the best approach.” Now, says Marzka, the team is focused on the business of football. “We suffered a bit of a hang-over from the past weeks’ tumult and lost to Stevenson, but we bounced back to win against Wilkes and then FDU, so we’re back on track and concentrating on finishing the season strong.”

President Fetrow agrees that the incident provoked a tumultuous period for the College, but she is heartened by the opportunities laid bare by the strife. “Every single campus I’ve been on has work to do in terms of communicating across differences and understanding implicit biases,” she asserts. Thanks to Durante and other members of Albright’s community, the way forward is now clear. Fetrow has rededicated herself to creating and implementing programs that will foster greater understanding and communication among various campus constituencies and celebrate diversity in all its forms. “This has been a difficult few weeks on campus for everyone, but it’s also been incredibly important. Through this whole series of events, I’ve had the opportunity to hear some raw, honest voices and I’ve learned how unwelcome some felt here at Albright. That made me very sad, but it has also created a greater sense of urgency for work that we must do.”

In the end, Fetrow continues, the experience has accelerated the growth of her leadership team and opened lines of communication and ways of talking that would have taken longer to reach were it not for a precipitating event. And she is confident that Albright will be stronger for the experience. “I think it’s imperative that we use this incident as an opportunity for ongoing conversations—we need to evolve our circle of understanding to encompass bigger and bigger circles,” she concludes. “My  goal is to use this incident to help Albright become the community we dream of being—to truly live the values of truth and justice that are represented by the symbols on Albright’s shield, honoring, nurturing, and celebrating human diversity in all its forms, and calling into question whatever negates or endangers the dignity and worth of the human spirit. We can move forward, and we will.”