JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Now-former East Tennessee State University Men’s Basketball Coach Jason Shay faced backlash after the team was captured on camera kneeling during the national anthem at an away game against Chattanooga in February.
Players told News Channel 11 they had been protesting at some games long before that. The only difference — they were caught on camera.
Jordan Coffin is a senior ETSU men’s basketball player, and one of the players who were captured kneeling at the Chattanooga game in February. He said Shay has always been sensitive to the wants and needs of the players.
“He asked the seniors and stuff what we thought we wanted to do and we got together and we were just like, with all this going on, we feel like just to keep bringing awareness, and we told him we wanted to kneel and so we went and told him in his office and told him, he was like, ‘alright, well that’s what we’ll do,’ he was very supportive of it. We kneeled in Florida, kneeled when we played Alabama at Alabama, and we kneeled at the Furman game, and then kneeled at Chattanooga,” Coffin said.
Players said Shay never told the team they could not kneel at home games, but that they were just never presented with the opportunity to do that. The national anthem would be played while the players were in the locker room.
“Normally, they would play the national anthem before the starting lineups, but they never played the national anthem at all, like they just went straight to starting lineups after we warmed up,” Coffin explained.
Coffin said former ETSU men’s basketball coach Steve Forbes was supportive of the team’s decisions, however, he said the team just did not have any paramount instances of police brutality to protest at the time.
“Police brutality and stuff wasn’t as high as it was during the course of the season, I mean it’s always Black Lives Matter, but we never really had like a legitimate reason to, we wasn’t about to kneel just to kneel. We came up with the decision as a whole team, as a collective group because of the Breonna Taylor, of the George Floyd, and all the other police brutality that never gets brought to any news that goes on, so it never was to disrespect none of our veterans,” he said.
He added that both coaches Forbes and Shay were supportive.
“They both were 100% supportive of whatever we wanted to do on and off the court,” Coffin added.
Sadaidrienne Hall joined the ETSU men’s basketball team in January 2021. He said he immediately felt as though he was stepping into a family, not just a team.
“The team just like welcomed me in. It was like a home environment when I first got there and talking to coach Shay was easy because he always understood, and agreed and tried to help fix the problem,” he said.
Hall added that he felt he could talk to Shay about anything, and that he was disappointed to hear about the coach’s resignation.
“I wasn’t here earlier in the year when they all agreed on kneeling, I came later,” Hall explained. “But we all have our own reasoning, why we chose to kneel and we talked to Coach Shay and he was fine with it and he had our back.”
ETSU administration was aware of players kneeling during the national anthem for months, according to President Brian Noland in testimony before the Tennessee Senate.
“I was made aware in November that the team had discussed with coach Shay their desire to speak out against social injustice across the country at that time, sir, we were preparing for what would have been away games, games were being cancelled left and right, we then played multiple basketball games without an incident and at that focus in time, sir, we were squarely centered on COVID and the health and safety of our student-athletes,” President Noland said at the Tennessee Senate Education Committee meeting on March 3.
But that was not the first time players have protested. There was a well-known desire among players to protest racial inequity that dates back several years.
T.J. Cromer played basketball at ETSU from 2015 to 2017 when Steve Forbes was head coach and Shay was an assistant coach.
“We did it, but we did it more in a silent way, we actually wore like black T-shirts to warm up in just as like a – I don’t know what to call it – a notification for what was going on so, we did do something to highlight the issues that were going on,” Cromer explained. “We never were told ‘we shouldn’t do that guys, or you know, there’s a better way,’ they always just supported us as long as what we were doing was you know productive and proactive in the community, so he really supported us in that.”
All players told News Channel 11 that it was highly out of character and unusual for Shay to resign just one year after becoming head coach.
Cromer said he does not think ETSU is welcoming to people of color.
“At this moment, I hate to say it, with me being an alumni, and me loving Johnson City, but it’ll be really hard for recruits to want to go there after these antics just because it shows that the university don’t support the student-athletes values. It’s like their voice doesn’t matter, as long as they are playing ball or you know, entertaining, and selling, you know, helping the university make money, that’s all that matters,” he said.
He said he thinks there will be fallout for the university and the team.