LINCOLN, Neb. -- Defend the First Amendment or leave it in tatters.

The latest tug-of-war over that issue is here in Nebraska where three football players took a knee during the national anthem recently to protest racial inequalities, but everywhere free thought has been quashed recently in the name of ... what?

Because some folks can't abide a silent, non-violent protest? Because college football players should stay in their lane, just play the game or risk losing their scholarships?

What the constitutionally ignorant don't understand is that it's all allowed. In fact, it should be encouraged given our country's history. You know, free speech, the unfettered exchange of ideas.

You don't have to like the players' actions, and that's fine, too. The point is to make you pay attention.

"That's the beautiful thing about this country and how it works," said Michael Rose-Ivey, Nebraska's senior linebacker.

There is a part of Rose-Ivey who wants it all to go away -- the attention. A humble kid from Kansas City has become the second-most visible individual next to Colin Kaepernick on the national anthem issue.

Rose-Ivey and two teammates took a knee prior to Nebraska's Sept. 24 game at Northwestern. It put a Power Five big-time college athletics timestamp on an issue that won't soon fade from view.

But it was the reaction, not the so much the action, that made at least as much news. Rose-Ivey remains bewildered that after that silent, non-violent protest he was called the N-word on social media. He remains depressed his mother had to see and read it.

"That really crushed me on that bus ride to the airport. I'm not going to lie," he said.

We have lost something in the national discussion if it doesn't tolerate free expression. Nebraska governor Pete Ricketts called the players' actions "disgraceful and disrespectful."

The governor has a right to say his piece, too. But let's not get away from the central theme.

"There needs to be an acknowledgement of things done in the past," Rose-Ivey said. "I'm not talking about just talking about it. There needs to be things said to help alleviate the differences.

"People talk about slavery being so far away ..."

In an exclusive interview with CBS Sports, Rose-Ivey spoke with eloquence about the point of the protests. He was reminded an entire generation of folks his age changed the nation's thinking in the 1960s. It wasn't always popular. It was, at times, violent. But history has proven it was also right.

It also helped stop a war.

"I have some faculty members who said they were protesting the Vietnam War on campus," Rose-Ivey recalled with pride.

See? This First Amendment thing isn't new or radical or tearing at the foundation of a democracy. It is a reflection of that democracy. Martin Luther King and Ghandi used similar non-violent protests to change society.

The opposite of the right to express oneself played out in Tiananmen Square 27 years ago.

"Regardless, if you took that knee, I'm going to look at you the same," Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong told his former roommate. "You're still the same people I went to battle with the last four-and-a-half years. You haven't changed."

Maybe the world has. Rose-Ivey certainly thinks so. There is a part of him that doesn't want this attention. But his powerful statement to the media explaining his actions remains one of the highlights of the season.

It should continue to resonate.

"He just wants to be a voice for the people who don't have a voice," Armstrong said. "He broke it down to me. It's awareness for a certain cause."

It's not just about police brutality. It certainly isn't about the military.

That's where the discussion has veered off track beginning with Kaepernick's actions. Taking a knee doesn't disrespect the sacrifices made by those brave men and women who have literally fought for his right to take that knee.

Remember that First Amendment thing?

"I've expressed to so many veterans on Facebook," Rose-Ivey explained. 'You're doing something I know for sure I would not have the guts [to do].'"

On the subject of police brutality, he said, "People will say, 'How are these cops getting off?' It's unfortunate but a lot of these laws are protecting them ... It's not just police killing black people ... They're also killing white people. They're also killing Latin Americans. This is not just a black person issue."

(Note: This interview was conducted before the police killings in Palm Springs, California, over weekend. However Rose-Ivey continually stressed his overall support for law enforcement.)

All of this represents an awakening among college athletes.

Those Missouri players who threatened to boycott last year complained about being perceived as heroes on Saturday but something else when they walked across campus.

The same complaint arose when I spoke with Nebraska athletes.

"People praise you for being a great football player," Armstrong said, "but then when you do something they don't like, all the sudden they switch how they feel about you.

"All the sudden you're the enemy."

Rose-Ivey is a 23-year-old sociology major was raised in inner city Kansas City. He attended Rockhurst High School, an elite Catholic all-male school run by the Jesuit order. The school's mission statement is "men for others."

Rose-Ivey says his consciousness was raised about the time of the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012. At the same time, the linebacker was rehabbing an injured ACL.

"Where I was mentally was down," Rose-Ivey said. "But the image keeps playing in my head. I was naïve to it. I remember sitting in my room watching CNN, 'All charges dropped.'"

Sometimes that awakening is imperfect. Actually, accused shooter George Zimmerman was found not guilty. A nation came down on both sides of that verdict.

Rose-Ivey came to Nebraska wanting to be a print journalist. More than anything, he said, it was his schedule that required a commitment to football.

"Some people are sacrificing their major, what they really want to be in classes for ...," he said. "Especially on this team, people are doing a lot more than football. Guys aren't able to take certain classes because of the schedule they're in."

We're way past the shock value of such comments. We've seen time and again that they're true. That's big-time college football culture until it isn't.

UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen called the culture "indentured servitude" in an interview with CBS Sports earlier this year.

"I hear people say, 'Shut up and play football,'" Rose-Ivey said. "I can't shut up and play football when I and a lot of people on this team have sacrificed a lot."

Michael Rose-Ivey is the face of this college awakening for the moment. His time will pass, but his mission won't. The First Amendment gives him a right to make those points.

You don't have to agree but history has proven you're going to listen.