More than a dozen former athletes at the University of North Carolina, including several star basketball players, appeared Friday to have helped scuttle a plan to display “Silent Sam,” a Confederate monument toppled by protesters in August, in a new campus history center.
The university’s board of governors was set Friday to consider a proposal to build a $5.3 million center that would house the 105-year-old statue, which has been condemned by critics as an enduring tribute to white supremacy.
The university said last year that “removing the Confederate monument is in the best interest of the safety of our campus,” but a 2015 state law required a state historical commission to approve of its removal from campus grounds.
Shifting the statue to a history center, where it could be displayed in proper context, was put forward as a compromise proposal. But Friday morning, just hours ahead of the board meeting, a local magazine published an open letter by the athletes that accused the university of using black students as “accessories” and criticized the athletic department for not taking a stand on the monument, in light of the high proportion of black athletes on many of its most prominent teams.
“We helped to tell the story that Carolina is the ‘University of the People,’” the athletes wrote in the letter, whose signers included the former Tar Heels Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter and Harrison Barnes. “We love U.N.C. but now also feel a disconnect from an institution that was unwilling to listen to students and faculty who asked for Silent Sam to be permanently removed from campus. The recommendation is embarrassing to us who proudly promote U.N.C.”
Shortly after the letter was published in Spectacular Magazine, which covers communities of color in central North Carolina, the university board said it would not support the plan. A separate letter from less prominent Tar Heel athletes, former and current, was also sent to university and state officials. Among its signers are five members of the men’s basketball team.
The letters represent the latest instance of athletes, predominantly African-American ones, taking stands in favor of social justice. This phenomenon of mixing politics with sports has a long lineage, but in recent years it has included the Missouri football team’s brief boycott in 2015 of an impending game and the former N.F.L. quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem.
Stackhouse, who played for the Tar Heels for two seasons in the 1990s before a nearly two-decade N.B.A. career, posted the letter to Twitter Friday afternoon.
Protesters toppled the statue in August amid national friction over monuments to the Confederacy. Silent Sam had long been a source of controversy on the Chapel Hill, N.C., campus, but the debate was further inflamed by the fatal eruption of racist violence a year earlier in Charlottesville, Va.
At a news conference Friday afternoon in advance of the No. 12 Tar Heels’ game versus No. 4 Gonzaga on Saturday, North Carolina’s men’s basketball coach, Roy Williams, said he had told his players to sign the letter if they wanted to.
“My own personal opinion,” added Williams, who graduated from the university, was an assistant coach and is now in his 16th season as head coach, “is I wish we didn’t have a situation where we would put him back on campus.”
In a statement Friday afternoon, an athletics department spokesman said, “Our student-athletes understand they have the right to freely express themselves, which is why more than 200 of them have signed the petition.”
In the most prominent intercollegiate sports, football and men’s basketball, the disconnect between players, on the one hand, and coaches and administrators, on the other, can seem especially stark, given racial discrepancies between the two groups and because N.C.A.A. rules prohibit athletes from receiving compensation for their participation beyond scholarships and related costs.
Black athletes made up the plurality of Division I football players and the majority of Division I men’s basketball players in the 2016-17 season, even as most of their coaches were white, according to Richard Lapchick, who leads the sports business program at the University of Central Florida.
The main letter’s signers, who also included more recent stars such as Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson, singled out the athletic department’s silence in the face of the Silent Sam controversy.
“We would have liked to have heard the opinion of the athletic department leadership and coaches regarding this disposition of Silent Sam,” they wrote. “Especially in light of the high number of black athletes who have participated on the basketball, football and track and field teams over the history of Carolina athletics. Their silence is very glaring and tells us a story.”
The University of North Carolina has one of college basketball’s most beloved and accomplished programs. It has won five national titles in the past four decades and groomed Michael Jordan and other stars. Jordan’s name was not on the letter.
The university came under fire in recent years over a widespread academic scandal involving athletes, in which dozens of football and basketball players maintained athletic eligibility via a “shadow curriculum” of phony classes, frequently requiring no attendance and just one paper.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jerry Stackhouse played for the Tar Heels’ 1993 national championship team. His college career started the next season.