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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas basketball players kneel during the playing of the national anthem prior to an exhibition game against Oklahoma Baptist on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, in Fayetteville. - Photo by Michael Woods

FAYETTEVILLE -- Six Arkansas women's basketball players knelt during the singing of the national anthem prior to the Razorbacks' exhibition game against Oklahoma Baptist on Thursday.

The players were Jordan Danberry, Tatiyna Smith, Kiara Williams, Jailyn Mason, Yasmeen Ratliff and Briunna Freeman. The six black women locked arms and kneeled just feet away from an ROTC color guard that was presenting the U.S. and Arkansas flags.

“Recently you all know that there’s been a lot of killings from police officers of African-Americans and other minorities,” Danberry told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “Me and my teammates took a kneel today during the national anthem to speak for those who are oppressed. As Razorback student-athletes we have a platform to do that.”

Kneeling during the national anthem has become a popular form of protest. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first to kneel during the anthem earlier this year, which he said was to protest what he perceived as racial injustice.

Following Arkansas' 79-32 win Thursday, Razorbacks coach Jimmy Dykes defended the players' decisions.

"I know in their hearts they, more than anything else, they want healing, they want better communication, they want to be understood," Dykes said. "They are just dealing with social issues that are in our country today.

"I respect their rights and what they did tonight. They know exactly where I stand about the national anthem and it's different than some of their views."

Dykes said he had multiple meetings with his team leading up to the game about the players' desire to protest. Several other players stood during the anthem.

"They had very, very strong, well-informed, educated opinions based on their real life experiences, their real life emotions," Dykes said. "I am very, very proud of them."

Hundreds of Arkansas fans took to social media to disagree with the protest, although some fans applauded the decision. Some asked university leaders to reprimand the players. Others stated they intended to disassociate themselves from the women's basketball program.

Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long was in attendance and indicated the athletics department would stand behind the players' right to free speech.

"In this country, we value everyone’s right to voice their opinions and views," Long said in a statement. "University campuses are places of learning and thus places where differences of opinion and varying perspectives are recognized. We respect the rights of our student-athletes and all individuals to express themselves on important issues in our nation.

"We will continue to encourage our student-athletes to engage in constructive conversations with their peers, coaches, support staff and administrators to raise awareness of varying backgrounds and life experiences, and to develop understanding among conflicting points of view."

Arkansas is scheduled to open the regular season next Friday with a home game against Sam Houston State. The game will begin at 10:30 a.m. and several local elementary schools will attend.

Paul Boyd contributed

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