When a picture of players on one knee surfaced, some fans expressed outrage at the gesture. School president Brian Noland said the team did not intend to disrespect the military, although he recognized the resulting “hurt, the pain and the emotion that has been evidenced across this region” in a board meeting this past Friday. Coach Jason Shay addressed the situation after the following game.
“It was a decision our team made prior to the season as a call to action and empowerment against racial inequalities and injustices,” Shay said.
“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. … No one knows the sacrifice, the fear, the pain, the anxiety, the loss that they’ve experienced fighting for our country’s freedom and rights. But many of us don’t know the same sacrifice, fear, pain and loss that people of color have had to endure over 400 years.”
By late last week, the local lawmakers added their voices to the chorus of anger. State Rep. Scotty Campbell told WJHL-TV “there’s a better time than that song.”
His Republican colleagues expressed outrage over the peaceful protest in legislative meetings and local television news segments. On Monday, Republican state senators sent a letter to the presidents and chancellors of Tennessee’s public universities.
“During athletic competitions, our student athletes represent not only themselves, but also our universities and all the citizens of this state, many of whom view this form of protest as offensive and disrespectful to the very thing our National Anthem represents,” it said. “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.
“To address this issue, we encourage each of you to adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward.”
The suggestion that student-athletes shed their First Amendment rights when they suit up for a public university is not a novel argument, although it is invalid, according to David L. Hudson Jr., an assistant law professor at Belmont University in Nashville.
“This is embarrassing,” Hudson said in an email to The Washington Post. “The First Amendment protects the right to peaceful protest. The lawmakers’ action is an affront to this fundamental First Amendment freedom.”
Some universities have attempted to impose limitations on the speech of their student-athletes on the field, the court and social media, arguing that the school has control over that speech because the players are receiving scholarships.
Clay Calvert, a Florida law professor and director of the nonprofit Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project, said student-athletes at public universities are granted leniency that he is not as a paid university employee.
“The argument they would make is your speech reflects our speech, but [student-athletes] are not really employees, and that’s the situation. They’re being treated as if they’re employees delivering a lecture,” Calvert said in a phone interview.
“The simple fact that a student-athlete puts on a uniform and represents a public university … that doesn’t sacrifice their First Amendment rights to free speech. That argument just doesn’t hold up.”
Sen. Paul Bailey, one of the letter’s 27 signatories, did not respond to questions about the potential legal challenges a prohibition on kneeling could attract. He said in an emailed statement that players should stand for the anthem.
“Without the sacrifices of our veterans, there wouldn’t be an opportunity for team sports or perhaps even the opportunity to receive an athletic scholarship or public college education. … If players are playing for Tennessee’s public university teams, they should stand for the National Anthem and honor those sacrifices. It is what should unite us as Americans, not divide us, and we should expect no less,” he said.
The day after last month’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, most players on the Tennessee women’s basketball team knelt during the national anthem, drawing criticism on social media but eluding the ire of state legislators.
ETSU’s men’s basketball team was scheduled to play Virginia Military Institute on Wednesday. Noland told WJHL-TV earlier in the week that he did not “anticipate that we will take any actions during that game that would reflect negatively upon our opponents,” but the game was canceled — as was the Buccaneers’ previous contest scheduled for this past Saturday — because of positive coronavirus tests within their opponent’s program.
Joe Smith, ETSU’s chief communications officer, said the university received the lawmakers’ letter and will review its current athletic policies. David Whitcomb, the deputy general counsel for the University of Tennessee System, said his office will continue to study the issue.
State Democratic Party chair Hendrell Remus, meanwhile, said he would like to see Republican lawmakers pen a letter condemning one of their own, Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, who attended former president Donald Trump’s rally before the Capitol riot. Weaver last month told the Tennessean “there wasn’t any violence going on here” and later described the day as “epic and historic.”