- Cheerleaders at Howard University took a knee before a football game Saturday
- A photo of the protest went viral, drew backlash
(CNN)Athletes across the country have been sitting or kneeling during the national anthem in recent weeks to protest police brutality and racism.
But a football game in Washington, D.C. may mark the first time a squad of cheerleaders has taken a knee during the song.
Cheerleaders at Howard University joined a national protest on Saturday afternoon by kneeling during the anthem at the AT&T Nation's Football Classic at RFK Stadium.
Zachary Johnson, executive president of Howard's school of communications, posted a photo of the cheerleaders to Twitter during the game. It's since attracted more than 6,700 retweets and almost 10,000 likes.
Johnson says his phone died soon after taking the photo but that the image was already gaining traction by Saturday night. Although his post went viral, Johnson said he also received many negative comments on Twitter.
"The backlash African-Americans are receiving right now is the exact reason for the protest," Johnson told CNN. "It justifies the reason to do it in the first place."
According to Johnson, only the cheerleaders took a knee, but many Howard football players raised their fists in solidarity.
"We can't even exercise our constitutional right to protest without being criticized," he said. "It's a conversation starter."
Similar gestures of protest have occurred around the country since 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem at a preseason NFL game in August. Other NFL players, including Arian Foster, Eric Reid, Jeremy Lane and Brandon Marshall, have since joined in.
More recently the movement has expanded to include college and even high school athletes.