WILLIAMSBURG — As William and Mary hosted nationally ranked North Carolina on Tuesday evening, 22 starting players between the two men's soccer sides lined up and faced the American flag for the routine pregame playing of the national anthem.
As the Star-Spangled Banner's opening note sounded, one of them took a knee and lowered his head, leaving the other 21 players standing at attention. Then a pair of teammates followed his lead, kneeling on the sideline, their heads bowed in solidarity.
Only those three William and Mary players knew the protest would take place. It was the first time this season sophomore starter Antonio Bustamante, senior Jordan Petitt and redshirt sophomore Christian Jones acted. They hadn't witnessed displays like theirs in the Tribe's previous seven matches.
Before he dropped down on rain-drenched Albert-Daly Field at Martin Family Stadium, Bustamante made eye contact with Petitt and Jones. Bustamante was positioned at the front of the starters' queue, wearing the 10 jersey, typically reserved in soccer for a team's most dynamic playmaker.
"They both looked at me and, I'm not going to lie, my heart was pumping a little bit," Bustamante said, "but I felt like I had to do what I think is right."
Bustamante made his move, and Petitt and Jones followed suit.
A few hundred fans, many huddled under umbrellas minutes before torrential rain poured down, awaited one of William and Mary's biggest nonconference matchups of the season. Had the weather not been so bleak, it might have been a packed house.
Bustamante listened to the crowd's reaction.
"Man, people are probably judging me right now," Bustamante recalled thinking. "I did hear some sounds from the stands … but I kind of just blocked all that out."
Similar protests are trending in sports, sparked by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting down during the anthem in August in the name of racial equality.
The William and Mary players share Kaepernick's motivation. The tipping point for the trio was the deaths of Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla. and Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C. Crutcher and Scott were killed by police officers; Scott on Tuesday.
Bustamante and Petitt each hail from suburban D.C. and attended West Springfield High. Bustamante is the son of a Bolivian immigrant and a black mother while Petitt's father is black and his mother white. Jones grew up in King George, outside of Fredericksburg, and both of his parents are black and D.C. natives.
Because of their family backgrounds, they consider protesting personal, even if it is based on discrimination one or both of their parents endured. Recent national unrest — violent protests in Charlotte didn't occur until Tuesday night — only pushed the players over the edge. They had already mulled taking a stand and not only for perceived police brutality against minorities.
"When we have the Pledge of Allegiance, we say 'liberty and justice for all,' and we're pledging towards the flag," Petitt said. "For me, the flag is supposed to be a symbol of equality and justice within our country. That may not be the same way other people see the flag. But for me, that's what's most important and what is symbolic of our country. So when I see that our country is not fulfilling that promise, I'm not going to stand for the flag."
William and Mary head coach Chris Norris, in his 12th season, first noticed Petitt and Jones drop on the sideline. As he faced the flag, Norris saw Bustamante kneeling out of the corner of his eye.
The next day, the team gathered for a post-game meeting.
Norris, who is white, said his first thought was to talk to Bustamante, Pettit and Jones individually and learn about their motivations, making sure they were educated on it and knew the ramifications of their actions.
"I feel very fortunate to have been born in this country and to have had the opportunities that I've had," Norris said, "but at the same time, I don't prescribe any sort of meaning on anyone else as far as what the flag means to them or what the anthem means to them. I think that those things are really dictated by your life experiences and your perspective."
Like his three players, Norris said he hasn't heard of similar protests by other William and Mary student-athletes, and that he hadn't encountered any by opponents. A UNC spokesman said the men's soccer team hadn't witnessed any either before Tuesday.
Norris isn't likely to join them in protest, but he supports their right and welcomes the conversation it sparked among his team, one that features a blend of ethnicities, which is common in Division I men's soccer.
Eight of the 12 players selected preseason all-CAA are foreign-born. Three of the four Americans attend William and Mary. That includes Bustamante and teammates William Eskay of Maryland and Charlottesville's Marcel Berry.
Petitt said one of his teammates admitted he didn't understand the significance of protests like Kaepernick's, but he was inspired to learn more because of Tuesday.
Some critics of the protest believe it denigrates the military and veterans and others who proudly honor the flag.
"When you bring in a diverse group," Jones said, "opinions change and the group learns more as a whole. That's something I believe the protest has done.
"I want people to know that first and foremost, this is not a statement meant to offend our troops or offend our federal workers. I'm someone who strongly supports this nation and a strong believer in American democracy. I feel, though, that we as a nation have not lived up to our standards. It's time to start a conversation."
Jones and Bustamante each played on youth academy teams for Major League Soccer's D.C. United. Bustamante, who learned to love soccer from his South American grandfather, hopes for a pro soccer career; Jones' father works for the federal government.
Jones is a government major who hopes to go to law school and Petitt majors in neuroscience, with medical school in his sights.
Jones recalled a team trip to Spain last year when all he could think about was getting back home and the things he missed. He understands what it means to feel national pride, and his passion for social activism is evident in the eloquent manner he delivers rhetoric.
Jones, Bustamante and Petitt are not sure how many, if any, of their teammates will join them in protest Saturday at UNC Wilmington or in future contests. But the three know they will continue taking a stand by not standing at all, and hoping for further dialogue.
"Maybe that police officer who feels a certain way can change his point of view," Jones said, "and with that point of view, we might not have a situation in which a gun is draw and a kid is on the other end, a finger's pulled and that's a life. Maybe we can change the system one case at a time. Through that, we can really strive toward equality. And then we can truly look at that flag and say that means something to all of us."
Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.