CHAPEL HILL — Members of the North Carolina football team are vocal when it comes to their opinions about Silent Sam. That doesn’t mean they’re itching to take part in the protests surrounding the controversial Confederate soldier statue on UNC’s campus.
“I’m always trying to support the people that are more progressive in the country in terms of equality,” junior defensive tackle Jeremiah Clarke said after practice Thursday. “Of course I had thoughts about (joining the protests calling for the statue’s removal). But where we are right now as far as trying to mold as a team, it wasn’t the most important thing for me to do at that moment.”
Silent Sam, located on UNC’s upper quad facing Franklin Street, was commissioned in 1913 as a tribute to university alumni killed while fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War. The statue has become a focus of attention in recent days after similar monuments — including one in Durham — were either removed by governmental decree or toppled by protesters.
Approximately 1,000 people gathered around Silent Sam on Tuesday after Gov. Roy Cooper gave UNC the authority to take its statue down as well.
Police in riot gear were deployed to the scene and surrounded Silent Sam, which is still standing. But unlike other rallies in other cities, this one remained peaceful and orderly.
Because of the possibility of violence, similar to that at protests in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia, UNC coach Larry Fedora warned his players about participating in the Silent Sam gathering.
But he didn’t discourage their attendance, either.
“It is up to them,” Fedora said. “All I ask is that they don’t surprise me. As long as they communicate with me so that I know before hand, that’s all I ask. But we talk about it and there wasn’t anybody that wanted to go. They’re just getting out of camp. They’re just looking to get off their feet, rest and recover.”
Fedora did hold a team meeting in which he allowed “everybody express their feelings.”
While linebacker Andre Smith said that a majority of the Tar Heels support those calling for the removal of Silent Sam and other Confederate symbols, their focus is set squarely on preparing for their season opening game against California in nine days.
That and the attention their celebrity on campus would attract is why they decided to steer clear of Tuesday’s protest.
Not that Smith didn’t think about going.
“Honestly, I thought it would be interesting to look at,” he said. “I don’t know if I would be up in there going crazy, because I don’t need to be part of that. Just looking at it and witnessing it would be cool, but also dangerous. So nobody went there.”