Michigan's Isaiah Livers says kneeling 'bigger than basketball'
Isaiah Livers wants to keep the conversation going.
That’s why the senior forward took a knee during the national anthem before Michigan’s season opener against Bowling Green on Wednesday, and did again before Sunday's game against Oakland.
"When I was watching the NBA, watching a lot of my role models follow that path (to kneel), I knew it was the right thing for me to do at least,” Livers said. “I'm not holding anybody else to do the same thing, but I knew that I wanted to do that. I wanted to stand for something right.
“There's no disrespect to no veterans at all. It was just something I decided to do for the social injustice in our country.”
It’s an issue that has been at the forefront of national discussion since George Floyd, a Black man who was handcuffed, died in late May after Derek Chauvin, a white officer, kneeled on his neck. Floyd’s death spurred nationwide protests against racism and police brutality, including in Detroit and Ann Arbor.
Sports teams and athletes have used the power of their platform in the pursuit of change. After the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin in late August — football players from Michigan and Eastern Michigan organized a Black Lives Matter protest and the Detroit Lions canceled a practice to speak out against the Blake shooting.
“When I was kneeling, I was actually thinking about Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many more victims,” Livers said. “It was heartbreaking. I knew that once I do that, I know I'm playing for something bigger than basketball — being like a symbol."
Livers was part of Michigan’s student-athlete initiative that led to seven social justice slogans — like Stand Together, Say Their Names, Hear Us and Unity — being approved for use on warmup apparel. Differing phrases are on the back of the Michigan basketball players’ long sleeve warmup shirts. The Wolverines also have a BLM patch on the front of their warmups and jerseys.
"That's something that matters and we want that point to get across to people who are supporting us or just turn the TV on…so everybody sees the message,” Livers said earlier this month on Michigan athletics' "Defend the Block" podcast.
“Equality is important because we're all equal. We're all human beings at the end of the day. We all have the same blood. No one is better than another person. It's something important that we need spread around the world.”
During the offseason, the Wolverines had weekly team Zoom meetings and part of their conversations would center around what was happening in the world. Coach Juwan Howard would set aside an hour where the players and staff would talk about social injustice, how they felt and how they can educate themselves to educate others.
Livers said he also kept in touch with other Big Ten players in a group chat during the summer and some said they were going to kneel during the national anthem this season. But regardless of each person’s decision, the main message was they all have one another’s back.
That was echoed by Livers’ teammates when he informed them before the opener he was going to take a knee.
“He wears his heart on his sleeve and he's a firm believer in that,” grad transfer Mike Smith said. “We all supported him with that.”
Livers said he received an outpouring of support from his family and friends and even some of his middle school teachers reached out.
“It's good to see people come out and support me,” Livers said. “I'd let them know that goes a long way and even if people don't support me, it doesn't matter. It's about peace, it's about love in this country and that's what I stand for.”
Fifth-year senior center Austin Davis and Livers are Michigan’s captains for this season.
According to Livers, they received the news about a month ago. The program didn’t make an announcement and the selections weren’t made public until before the game against Bowling Green.
"We were all about to break it down for practice and (Howard) said, 'Oh by the way, Isaiah you're a captain. Austin Davis you're a captain,'” Livers recalled. “We were like, 'Oh, OK. Cool.' It was a great feeling.
“I felt like I was a bit of a help last year, so it was my duty to become a captain this year, especially Austin. We're going to be the guys, but just because we're labeled captains doesn't mean we don't have other guys that (can lead).”
Smith said the players didn’t vote — a common process among teams — and Howard picked the captains, though Smith didn’t have a problem with the selections. Howard did the same thing last year, but he didn’t name captains until after the season started.
“Those two are our leaders,” Smith said. “They bring it every day and they also have a big voice.”