CHARLOTTE — When Harrison Barnes visited Chapel Hill late in the summer, a few months before he began his seventh NBA season, he described his former campus as “crazy.”
It had been around a week since Aug. 20, when protesters pulled down UNC’s Silent Sam statue the night before classes began. Barnes saw a heavy police presence in McCorkle Place and multiple demonstrations — some for returning the statue to its original pedestal, others for its permanent removal.
“There were all types of different groups that were out there,” he told the Daily Tar Heel in an exclusive interview, after his Dallas Mavericks beat the Charlotte Hornets, 122-84. “I think it kind of started a conversation, just among some athletes, about how students felt and how faculty felt.”
So when a petition began circulating among North Carolina athletes in mid-December, speaking out against Chancellor Carol Folt and the UNC Board of Trustees’ proposal to house the statue in a new "University History and Education Center" on campus, Barnes didn’t hesitate to add his name.
“I personally felt it was best if all the leaders were the people who are currently there now,” said Barnes, who played for UNC from 2010 to 2012. “You know, as a former athlete, you have your opinions. But the people who are there on the ground, they know more. So when the petition started circulating, I read it, and I felt that it spoke for the values I believed.”
On Wednesday night in the Spectrum Center, Barnes wasn’t the only former Tar Heel to make his stance on the statue clear. The Hornets’ Marvin Williams, who won a national title with UNC in 2005, also added his name to a petition, days before the UNC-system Board of Governors rejected Folt and the BOT’s proposal on Dec. 14.
“I just feel like today, in 2019, we’re past that,” Williams, a 14-year veteran, told the DTH in an exclusive interview. “Obviously, it’s a part of history. Not all your history is always good history. I just don’t feel like it should be on campus anymore.”
As of Thursday, Barnes and Williams are two of roughly 300 current and former North Carolina athletes who have signed petitions opposing Silent Sam’s return to campus in any form. The first letter, written by former UNC fencer Ezra Baeli-Wang, has been converted into an accessible Google Form, where more athletes can add their names to a growing list.
Another open letter, inspired by the first, is signed mostly by former men’s basketball players, who wrote it was “crisis time” at UNC. The petitions aren’t identical, but their messages are the same. Barnes put his name on both documents, and Williams put his name on the second one.
“As current and former Tar Heels, we love our University and its people,” Baeli-Wang’s letter read. “We love our classmates and teammates, our coaches and our fans. All of them. A monument to those who fought and killed to keep Black people enslaved has no place on our campus. White supremacy has no place on our campus.”
"I just don't think it reflects the values of UNC"
After last night's Hornets/Mavs game, Harrison Barnes spoke on his decision to sign a petition against Silent Sam's return to campus and commended the current UNC athletes who have signed. @DTHSportspic.twitter.com/5gBWbbIEgO
There are plenty of recognizable names on the lists — among them Barnes, an NBA champion and 2016 Olympic gold medalist, and Williams, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. But Barnes kept the focus on current UNC athletes, who make up a majority of the signees.
“I thought it was big for the current collegiate athletes to step up and say things,” he said. “I know, a lot of times, it can be kind of scary because you don’t know, stepping into that political arena, what the repercussions will be. Will your coach look down on you? Will you get bad feedback from the university? But I was proud of all the students who spoke up.”
The UNC men’s basketball team, Barnes and Williams’ direct connection to the school, has seen four current players sign the petition: Garrison Brooks, Sterling Manley, Brandon Robinson and Kenny Smith Jr. Head coach Roy Williams called the statue “a very divisive thing” and said he supported his players’ rights to express themselves.
Roy Williams' statement regarding Silent Sam and three current players signing a petition against the monument on campus pic.twitter.com/U1cd1w7Nqi
Barnes and Williams, years removed from their time at Chapel Hill, are more than comfortable doing that. While playing with the Warriors, Barnes, 26, earned the nickname The Senator for his activism. For the past year, he’s been working with The Players’ Tribune, interviewing people he admires across various fields. Some recent subjects include Dr. Harry Edwards, Jack Dorsey, Ta-Nehisi Coates and John Legend.
Williams, 32, has become one of the most fan- and media-friendly players on the Hornets since arriving in Charlotte. On Wednesday, the Hornets’ first ever Pride Night, Williams appeared in a midgame video, speaking on the importance of acceptance and diversity.
"I just feel like today, in 2019, we're past that. Obviously, it's a part of history. Not all of your history is always good history. I just don't feel like it should be on campus anymore" — Hornets' Marvin Williams, another former UNC athlete who signed. @DTHSportspic.twitter.com/r0K0NiN0cw
Folt and the BOT will have until March 15 to present a new proposal to the BOG. As for now, though, the opinion of many UNC athletes — Barnes and Williams included — is clear.
“I just don’t think it reflects the values of UNC,” Barnes said. “I hope that a better resolution can occur than what’s been proposed.”
“I feel like Carolina’s an incredible university,” Williams said. “I feel like a lot of people have done great things there — both people of color and people that aren’t of color. But, at the end of the day, as far as the statue, I just don’t feel like it should be on campus anymore.”