File-University of Kentucky mens basketball coach John Calipari

Kentucky head coach John Calipari instructs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Vanderbilt in Lexington, Ky., Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

(The Center Square) - When Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers took to the floor of the chamber Tuesday, he did not mention the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team, but everyone knew what exactly he was talking about in his speech. 

The Republican leader spoke just a couple of days after the University of Kentucky team chose to kneel during the playing of the national anthem before Saturday’s game at the University of Florida. 

Stivers said that while players kneeling is protected speech, he added that it was “debatable” whether it was the right time and place for that action. He spoke of his uncle who fought in the Korean War and of his son, who is currently in the military. 

“So you want to know the hurt that a parent has when he sees that, that people protest this nation, they protest this flag, which is symbolic of my uncle and symbolic of what my son is willing to do,” said Stivers, choked up with emotion. “Understand the hurt. There's a lot of hurt that has gone on around here.” 

After the game, UK player Davion Mintz said kneeling was a statement about what’s happening in the country.  

“These kids are good kids,” said coach John Calipari, who along with other coaches joined them in kneeling. “They care about this country and all of the other stuff. They're trying to figure out life and making statements that they think they have to make. I want to listen to what they're saying and then I'll support them if they want me to be there.” 

In the past year, college athletes across the country, including those at UK and the University of Louisville, have participated in numerous demonstrations calling for equality and support of such movements as Black Lives Matter.  

While some expressed support for the players’ actions, others – including elected leaders – issued sharp rebukes on social media. 

Laurel County Sheriff John Root posted on his personal Facebook page that while the Cats won Saturday, they lost respect. 

“I honestly can’t believe a team from Kentucky ( the Hillbilly State ) took a knee to our National Anthem with the American flag displayed!” Root said Sunday on Facebook. “Can you imagine the blood and sweat that has been lost for that flag???” 

Root, who said he lost an uncle in Vietnam, made headlines by appearing in a video with Laurel County Jailer Jamie Mosley where they both burned UK shirts. They also offered a T-shirt exchange, offering a pro-first responder shirt for those who wanted to get rid of a Wildcats shirt. 

In neighboring Knox County, the Fiscal Court, the county’s governing body, passed a resolution calling for state leaders to defund the university in wake of the players’ actions.