Tennessee Republicans sent a letter to all public Tennessee colleges and universities Monday, urging presidents and chancellors to take action against student-athletes kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem at their games.
“When they don the jersey of a Tennessee university, they step out of their personal roles and into the role of an ambassador for our state,” the senators wrote. “We expect all those who walk onto the field of play representing our universities to also walk onto the field of play to show respect for our National Anthem.”
East Tennessee State University (ETSU) men’s basketball coach Jason Shay had a statement on deck last week after his players and coaches kneeled during the anthem before their loss to Mercer. His team has also kneeled before games at Alabama, Furman, and Chattanooga.
“It was a decision our team made prior to the season as a call to action against racial inequalities and injustices. … Our intentions by no means involve disrespecting our country’s flag or the servicemen and women that put their lives on the line for our nation,” Shay said in part. He also mentioned that Black History Month is the “perfect time” for this type protest.
However, in their letter, the senators reminded the universities that fans and Americans interpret kneeling as “offensive and disrespectful to the very thing our National Anthem represents,” and encouraged the university leaders to adopt policies to avoid kneeling from happening in the future.
“They’re representing the school and the school represents Tennessee and Tennessee shows preference to our time-honored people and institutions who went before us. We respect our heritage and our history,” state Sen. Janice Bowling said during a joint House and Senate government operations committee meeting on Monday.
Sen. Mark Pody expressed concern that student-athletes would engage in protest while “they’re taking state money, they’re in our state schools, in our state uniforms.”
The decision of ETSU players to kneel has caused shockwaves throughout the state, with the center of the controversy falling on university President Dr. Brian Noland. Noland said he did not believe the students meant to disrespect the flag, veterans, service members, or their families, during the ETSU Board of Trustees meeting Friday but acknowledged “the hurt, the pain, and the emotion that been evidenced across this region,” that came from the players’ actions.
Noland told the Board he had lost friends over the team’s actions and had family members angry at him, and that the university had lost business partners over the controversy as well. He said the athletes carry the “hopes and dreams” of the region when they wear the university uniform, and said, “I know we have a lot of work to do to rebuild faith and I don’t know if it’s possible to rebuild that faith because this is such an emotionally charged issue.”
“You’ve got a little bit of a challenge to rebuild some trust here because I think things were handled very, very poorly,” Board of Trustees member Kelly Wolfe said.
In response to the community backlash across the state against the team’s decision to kneel, graduate students from the ETSU Department of Social Work and a group called The New Generation Freedom Fighters organized a march on Tuesday in support of the basketball team kneeling.