NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL)- In a letter to university presidents in Tennessee, several state senators asked school leaders to adopt policies related to kneeling or any form of protest that “could be viewed as disrespectful” to the flag or the nation.
Senator Paul Bailey (R- Sparta) posted the letter on his Twitter account Tuesday afternoon that outlined their requests.
The letter’s signers include all 27 Republicans, including Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol). None of the senate’s six Democrats signed.
Lundberg told News Channel 11 Tuesday afternoon that he placed much less blame on the ETSU players who kneeled than he does on coaches and administrators.
“I give those students a pass because they’re 18, 19 years old, they’re very impressionable by a lot of things going on,” Lundberg said. “I’m not going to give a pass to the coaches, because they’re teachers, that is a teachable moment.”
“I’m not gonna give a pass to those presidents of those universities who are responsible for those coaches to take those opportunities to teach a lesson. A very strong one.”
ETSU spokesman Joe Smith provided the following statement late Tuesday afternoon.
“ETSU is in receipt of the letter from members of the Tennessee General Assembly. We recognize the importance of this issue and will undertake a review of our existing athletic policies.”
The letter reads in part, “While we recognize our student athletes may express their own views on a variety of issues in their personal time, we do not condone any form of protest that could be viewed as disrespectful to our nation or flag while they are representing our state universities.”
On February 15, the ETSU Men’s Basketball Team was recorded kneeling before the game at Chattanooga. An ETSU official confirmed the team has done so prior to other games this season as well.
Lundberg said he was surprised when he saw a screen capture of the players kneeling last week.
“I was surprised but more than that I was disappointed,” Lundberg said. “And I was saddened. And again not necessarily in the students but also in the coaches who clearly let this go on because they were there too. And it wasn’t just tacitly letting this go on, they were endorsing it – and that was disappointing as well.”
Head Coach Jason Shay was asked about his team kneeling that same week after the Bucs faced Mercer at home.
Coach Shay said kneeling is about shedding light on racial issues, not disrespecting the American flag or the men and women who have served.
Late last week, ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland said the men’s basketball team’s decision to kneel during the national anthem has caused pain across the region and doesn’t reflect the region’s values.
Lundberg expanded on that.
“In my case and a number of others when you’ve put on a uniform and you’ve gone in to other countries and you’ve fought for our freedoms you have a completely different perspective.”
He said he supported anyone’s right to protest and that in his view the flag actually represents that freedom for Americans. But he said he draws the line at the national anthem.
“I think I speak for most of us when we talk about that flag, our national anthem, that is the one thing that unites all of us. We’re an imperfect union but we always strive to become a perfect union and that flag is the one thing that holds us and binds us all together.”
Asked if the players’ actions had engendered any curiosity in him about what they might have wanted to convey, Lundberg said “very lightly.
“I look around here in Nashville and there are people protesting every day, dozens and dozens of things and that’s great, that is their right, that is the beauty of this country. I’m frankly glad they have the opportunity to protest — at an appropriate time.”
Lundberg said while he doesn’t yet know whether members of ETSU’s administration knew players had been kneeling at away games before it became public, Lundberg said “I fully intend to find that out.”
For now, Lundberg said, the letter from senators is meant as a statement of their expectations for leaders at Tennessee’s public universities, while they wait to learn what additional authority they might have as lawmakers.
“That authority is really not about our authority as a legislature. It’s expectations that we sent back to those presidents and said, ‘as policymakers, this is what we believe and we believe you as the leaders of the institutions should be embodying this and you should teach your coaches who in turn obviously should teach their players and their teams.’
“We want them to know very clearly how we feel and I think the letter says very clearly how we all feel.”
The topic also came up Monday during a local panel discussion on Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter.
You can watch that entire discussion on our WJHL Facebook page below.
The letter from senators encourages chancellors and presidents at universities across the state, including East Tennessee State University, to “adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward.”
Other schools the letter addressed include schools such as the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
“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,” the letter states.
Reaction from those who spoke to News Channel 11’s Anslee Daniel on campus Tuesday was overwhelmingly in support of the players.
“It’s a little absurd that the state of Tennessee thinks they can overstep this right that we have in the first amendment,” said freshman, Ethan Zinser.
Others saying that the peacefulness of the players’ statement should be highlighted.
“I don’t think it’s technically necessary for them to ask for that policy at all just because they were not really causing any harm or any foul at all,” said junior, Davian Freeman.
Some students referred to the protests the country and Tri-Cities saw over the summer while discussing the letter.
“People want to stand up for what they believe in so they should be able to have the choice and not have someone tell them what they can and can’t do,” said sophomore Emily Adams.
The ETSU’s United Campus Workers Group and faculty in the school’s Africana Studies program issued statements in support of the players.
Ginni Blackhart is a psychology professor at the university and the vice-president of the faculty senate. On her own behalf, she says she’s proud of the players.
“I’m really proud of what the ETSU Men’s basketball team did and of coach Shay’s support of them and it’s really disappointing to see our state representatives and so many in the community speak so negatively about what they did,” she said. “It’s not so much that the players kneeled during the national anthem as a protest to racial inequality but rather is how the state legislators have responded to that… in a really pretty negative way.”
She also says she is worried about what would happen if the university doesn’t comply.
“My concern is that it could affect funding to ETSU as well as to other colleges and universities in the state if their students engage in similar behaviors or similarly if those universities do not do what these representatives want them to and put a moratorium on these kinds of peaceful protests,” said Blackhart.
Wednesday, the university will present its proposed budget to the Senate Education Committee– of which Senator Jon Lundberg is the vice-chair and Rusty Crowe is a member. All but one member of that committee signed the letter to university administrators today.