Student athletes in the Big Ten Conference, including Rutgers University, have the blessing of Commissioner Kevin Warren to take a knee when the national anthem is played before a game this fall.

Warren told USA Today that he is personally "empowering" student athletes to express their right to free speech and peaceful protest.

“What I have to do as a leader, I know my words matter, I know my actions matter, and I will work through over these next couple months where I stand, and they know I stand together with them in all that I do," Warren told USA Today.

Some athletes at all levels have taken a knee during the national anthem for several years as a protest against the treatment of racial minorities, since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepermich started the practice in 2016. Most teams have allowed it to happen without penalizing players and neither condone nor condemn the action.

The act of taking a knee has gained new attention during protests in recent weeks over the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police.  Many police and politicians have joined protesters in taking a knee. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently encouraged players to "speak out and peacefully protest" and said he regretted not listening in the past to the concerns of players.

The NFL had set policy in 2018 that allowed players to stay in the locker room during the national anthem, but required any present to stand.

Rutgers Athletics has not yet responded to a message seeking further comment about Warren's statement.

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The Scarlet Knights football team posted a video titled #Chop4change on June 1, featuring players sharing their one-word responses to Floyd's. Their responses included "fear," "pain," "sorrow," "anger" and "hopelessness."

The video ended with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr: "The time is always right to do what is right."

"Our greatest gap is that between knowing and doing. I pray we can continue to lead by actions that unite our community and state," head coach Greg Schiano wrote in a message on his Twitter account.

The Big Ten has created a voter registration initiative to go along with its Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition. The conference hopes its 14 schools and thousands of student-athletes can leverage their platform to spur social change.

Warren said the announcement of the voting initiative finalizes plans that have been in the works since February. Warren said he hopes the nonpartisan program will encourage student-athletes to become part of the electoral process.

It will include participants from each Big Ten school with monthly programming, beginning in July and ending with the general election in November.

(Includes material copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com or via Twitter @DanAlexanderNJ

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