042215CM1284SPRINGFIELD – State Senator Napoleon Harris announced Wednesday he plans to pursue legislation to protect student athletes’ freedom of speech and make sure they aren’t punished academically or economically for taking a stand.

Harris’ interest in drafting Illinois protections follows news out of Missouri that Republican lawmakers want to crack down on African American football players who protested racial unrest on campus by refusing to play until the head of the university stepped down.

“I want to make sure our universities remain bastions of free speech and personal growth,” said Harris, a Harvey Democrat and former professional football player who starred at Northwestern University. “What was being discussed in Missouri is blatantly unconstitutional and treats students like they are property. I want to send a message that protects students’ rights before anyone gets any dumb ideas here.”

Last week, a Republican state representative in Missouri filed legislation that would strip student athletes of their scholarships if they refused to play for any reason other than health. Coaches could also be fined for supporting student protests.

Harris stressed that many student athletes come from disadvantaged backgrounds and their athletic scholarships allow them access to higher education. It would be legally, socially and morally wrong to use those scholarships to silence student concerns.  

“Athletes are not employees of the university,” Harris said. “In fact, in many programs they bring in substantial revenue to universities, yet they do not reap the benefits. Nonetheless, they are still members of a civic society who have rights to speak out against what they see as wrong. I believe these students and student athletes have the right to engage in these discussions without fear of unjust action,” Harris said.