In September 2020, Virginia Tech football player Kiersten Hening was benched after refusing to take the knee for a pre-game “unity statement” ahead of a match against the University of Virginia (UVA). What followed was a series of alleged accusations from Hening that she’d been ostracised from the team and her coach—culminating in the midfielder quitting the team and subsequently seeking legal action. Fast forward to January 2023 and Hening has now received both a $100,000 settlement, dodged a lengthy federal investigation and incited a media flurry surrounding her “political beliefs.”
Let’s unpack the details surrounding the incident and following lawsuit, shall we?
In September 2020, Hening and her football team, the Hokies, were gearing up for a game against the women’s UVA team. During this time, a number of sports teams had begun ‘taking the knee’ before matches—as a direct form of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, which had reached its peak after a series of national protests across the US following the brutal murder of George Floyd.
After refusing to make the political statement along with the rest of her team, Hening claimed that her former coach Charles ‘Chugger’ Adair verbally abused her at halftime, wagged his finger in her face and told her to stop “bitching and moaning.” After the game, Hening remained benched and allegedly continued to be chastised by Adair which resulted in the former football player officially leaving the team.
In 2021, some months after the incident occurred, the midfielder sued Adair on first amendment grounds, alleging that she had been punished for her political views, as reported by Fox News. In the suit, Hening stated her support for social justice issues, however, she subsequently emphasised her dislike for the BLM organisation—citing its “ tactics and core tenets of its mission statement, including defunding the police” as inherently opposed to her own values and beliefs.
Both Virginia Tech and the Hokies coach tried to have the case thrown out after Adair pointed out two other players who also decided not to kneel but did not lose their starting spots. Nevertheless, on 2 December, federal judge Thomas Cullen denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, agreeing with Hening that there had been a noticeable dip in her playing time after the event occurred.
“Ultimately, Adair may convince a jury that this coaching decision was based solely on Hening’s poor play during the UVA game, but the court, viewing the evidence in the light most favourable to Hening, cannot reach that conclusion as a matter of law,” Cullen ruled.
Shortly after the settlement was reached, coach Adair released a statement on Twitter, sharing his relief that the case had finally come to an end:
This is not the first time we’ve seen personal political views spark controversy within the sporting arena. In 2016, US civil rights activist and football quarterback Colin Kaepernick received worldwide backlash after deciding to take the knee during the national anthem at an NFL preseason game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. Kaepernick’s motive was to initiate a call to action in relation to racial injustice and police brutality in the US. While it may have drawn criticism from some, it simultaneously marked the beginning of a wave of solidarity—one that still stands today, with many English football players still respecting and honouring this new symbolic protest.
More recently, global football organisation FIFA threatened to impose strict sporting sanctions against any football captains who donned the OneLove armband—a visual statement and symbol of LGBTQIA+ rights—during the course of the Qatar World Cup 2022.
While some may still consider sports and politics to be distinct and inherently separate, it’s becoming clear that that is far from the truth—if anything, the politicisation of sports is heading towards a steep incline.
On Saturday 1 October 2022, an Indonesian derby game between rival clubs Persebaya Surabaya and Arema FC ended in a tragedy that saw 125 people killed and more than 320 others injured. Many have described the terrible incident as one of the world’s worst sporting disasters.
After the away team Persebaya Surabaya won the match 3-2, Arema supporters, angry at their team’s first at-home defeat by the rival club in 23 years, decided to storm the pitch of the Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang Regency, East Java.
In an attempt to quell the invasion and disperse the agitated supporters, riot police officers fired tear gas at the crowd of the losing home side. It has since been reported that “thousands of Arema supporters invaded the pitch and threw bottles and other missiles at players and football officials,” as stated by Sky Sports.
“It had gotten anarchic. They started attacking officers, they damaged cars,” East Java’s police chief Nico Afinta told reporters on Saturday night. Clashes spread outside the stadium where at least five police vehicles were overturned and set on fire.
Regardless of this however, world football governing body FIFA specifies in its stadium safety and security regulations that no firearms or “crowd control gas” should ever be carried or used by stewards or police. So how come in this specific instance, both took place?
Well, so far, East Java police have not commented on whether they were aware of the regulations against using gas in stadiums—understandably so, as it seems many experts are blaming the use of the banned crowd control chemical for the gravity of the event.
As shown in horrifying footage of the evening, as soon as the stadium security unleashed the tear gas on the Arema rioters, a stampede followed. Some people were suffocated and others trampled as hundreds panicked and ran to the exit in a bid to escape the chemical.
Though initial figures from Indonesian officials reported the death count at 174, that has since been lowered. That being said, with over 320 injured, there are fears that the number could continue to rise.
“Many of our friends lost their lives because of the officers who dehumanised us,” Muhammad Rian Dwicahyono, 22, told Reuters, crying as he nursed a broken arm at the local Kanjuruhan hospital. “Many lives have been wasted.” The publication further reported that hospital head Bobi Prabowo also told Metro TV that some victims had sustained brain injuries and that the fatalities included a 5-year-old.
Indonesia’s chief security minister, Mahfud MD, claims the stadium was beyond its 38,000 capacity, stating 42,000 tickets had been sold—a fact that might remind many of the Astroworld tragedy, where a fatal crowd crush occurred during the first night of the 2021 festival, killing ten people in total.
Following the incident, the Indonesian Football Federation announced that Arema FC will not play games at its stadium again for the remainder of the season. The opposite team also released a tweet to express their grief at the situation. “The great family of Persebaya expresses its deepest condolences for the loss of life after the game of Arema FC vs. Persebaya. No life is worth more than football. We pray for the victims and hope that their families have strength,” the post’s translation read.
Worldwide renowned football clubs all followed suit, with Arsenal writing, “We are deeply saddened to learn of the events in Malang at the Kanjuruhan Stadium Indonesia today. Along with everyone who finds a connection through football, our thoughts are with everyone affected by this tragedy.”
Paris Saint-Germain stated, “Paris Saint-Germain would like to offer its deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in the stadium tragedy in Malang, Indonesia.”
Indonesia’s human rights commission plans to investigate security at the grounds, including the use of tear gas. With the country being scheduled to host the FIFA under-20 World Cup in May and June of 2023, it’s no surprise that the incident might injure its football image.
Indonesia is also one of three countries bidding to stage next year’s Asian Cup, the continent’s equivalent of the Euros, after China pulled out as hosts.