After kneeling and coach’s departure, a tough reckoning on race at East Tennessee State

The gesture seemed innocuous at the time: a simple act of interracial protest that didn’t seem to pose a threat to anyone. Kneeling during the national anthem, or standing and linking arms, has become a hotly contested issue nationwide. Athletes at the University of Tennessee have already kneeled during the Star-Spangled Banner this year, and current Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins is speaking out about his decision to sit during the national anthem (and not, it would seem, standing up). But at East Tennessee State University, a football player has been suspended for kneeling during the national anthem. The circumstances surrounding the player’s punishment have been kept quiet, but in the aftermath of a racially charged scandal that has engulfed ETSU, we’ll soon

The East Tennessee State University football team is a long-time Division I-A team and a solid one at that. So when an allegedly racist text message was sent by the team’s defensive coordinator to several of his white players last year, the resulting outcry became a major distraction.

On a cold February night in Chattanooga, about 20 East Tennessee basketball players, coaches and staff made the same peaceful, if defiant, statement that many have made since 49ers guard Colin Kapernick committed a silent act of defiance in 2016. They knelt during the national anthem in front of 1,000 fans and more snippets of fans from the COVID era.

Such protests – Kaepernick’s in particular – have been controversial before, but the response to a simple act of defiance by the Bakkaniers highlighted something different and, in some ways, more personal: a small, divided community struggling with its racist past and unequal present.

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This reaction, in a place where the style of the new civil rights movement and its emphasis on structural inequality and social action are at the forefront, has shaken up a proud basketball program. First-year coach Jason Shay, White, eventually resigned, and more than half of his team did as well, moving to the transfer gate. The vast majority of white residents who have cheered on the Bucks’ many victories over the years have turned against a team that is largely black.

You can’t heal and fix something if you don’t know the name of an elephant. First you have to give it a name. And what happens, I think, is that some elements try not to mention that name, the Rev. Edward Wolff, a retired pastor and founder of Dialogue Between Blacks and Whites, a group in Johnson City, Tennessee, that promotes interracial cooperation, to ESPN. It can be summed up in two words: systemic racism. Until we acknowledge it, accept it and talk about it, we can’t heal.

While the nation celebrates a year since the killing of George Floyd by police led to a national reexamination of racial issues, the storm at ETSU, evidenced by interviews with local officials and nearly 500 pieces of correspondence released by the school in response to requests from ESPN and other news publishers, raises sobering questions about whether the players’ protest will lead to long-term change or more divisiveness in Johnson City.

The city of 63,000 on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest has been forced to think more than ever in recent weeks about issues of diversity, equality and inclusion, university President Brian Noland said in an email in response to several alumni, administrators and others who wrote to the university about the protest.

I was struck by the polar nature of these discussions. Unfortunately, this issue reflects many aspects of our society where people are stuck in their positions and cannot find common ground.

The owner of the Honda dealership returned the vehicles borrowed by the ETSU coaching staff. This action led to protests from Honda headquarters, as well as protests from students and other residents who defended the team’s actions. Johnson City Press/Jonathan Roberts

According to an email reviewed by ESPN, the news for ETSU’s front office began shortly after photos were released of players and coaches getting into trouble before the game against rival Chattanooga State on the 15th. February by the hands and knelt to touch.

A handful of residents who wrote a letter to the university supported the players. As you know, this is in no way disrespectful to the flag, veterans or the United States of America, wrote Tavia Sillmon, president of the Johnson City-Washington County NAACP, to university administrators. The University’s Faculty Senate has passed a resolution recommending that ETSU support students who work for social justice in our local and national communities. And Helen Zakiewicz, a nursing professor at ETSU, said she was inspired by the team’s idealism. I applaud his willingness to use his prominent place on the team to openly advocate for justice, equality and inclusion, she wrote.

But the vast majority of the letters condemned the team’s on-field protest, often with harsh and sometimes nasty words.

Leftist thinking and policies will destroy our schools and college athletics from within, John D. Spike Tickle wrote in an email to Noland. Attached to his letter was an article entitled Don’t Give Money to Your Alma Mater.

Doug Howard, a 1978 ETSU graduate whose father fought in World War II, called for sanctions against the team and coaches. All ETSU athletes should be aware that such actions will result in future exclusion from the team and the loss of their scholarship, he wrote. Coaches are suspended until fired! An anonymous author left an openly racist message. It said: Can you black athletes at least write if they know why they disrespect this country.

In many ways, the consequences of the protest at ETSU were unlike those of Kapernick, whose NFL career was derailed after his protest, or others who knelt in the name of racial justice. In February, the entire basketball team at Bluefield College, an NAIA institution in Virginia, was suspended and forced to retire after repeatedly kneeling during the national anthem. The next month, an Oklahoma sportscaster hurled racial slurs and insults at members of a high school girls’ basketball team who had taken a knee during the national anthem before a state tournament quarterfinal game.

At ETSU, major sponsors and other donors were not happy because they felt the event showed no respect for the flag and the many veterans who have served in the military to defend it, and some withdrew their support. The owner of Johnson City Honda, who is also on the university’s fundraising committee, returned the vehicles he had loaned to Shai and his assistant coaches. Upon hearing this, Honda headquarters tweeted: These actions are contrary to our beliefs. We have informed the parties concerned so that they can take the necessary measures.

Meanwhile, school emails show that Noland is struggling to retain other donors.

I spent the morning with two key business leaders who have withdrawn their support from the university, he wrote in the days following the protest to Steven DeCarlo, an ETSU trustee and insurance director in Charlotte. After these meetings, one of them decided to stay and the other told me he would sleep and let me know his decision tomorrow morning.

At the same time, Noland and other university administrators are under intense political pressure. Diane Harshbarger, a Republican congresswoman from the district, said on Twitter that the protest was disrespectful. In addition, 27 Republican members of the Tennessee Senate signed a letter asking Noland and the presidents of other universities in the state to ban athletes from protesting during the national anthem.

We expect all those who take the field to represent our universities to also take the field and respect our national anthem, the letter said. To address this issue, we encourage each of you to adopt a policy in your athletics department that prohibits such actions in the future.

The team members also felt the heat. One day, as the players were leaving practice at the community center, they came across a car with its door open. When the driver noticed them, he started yelling.

Dude said: You’re a disgrace. I hope the program doesn’t work. In an interview, Jordan Coffin, a veteran defender from last season, said: He just opened his mouth for us. We didn’t respond. But it was wild.

The team was also attacked on social media, Coffin recalled. We have become a trend on Twitter. And some fans stopped coming to the games. It was a message, he said. Shay, who promised his players he would support them when they said before the season that they planned to take a knee, defended them against the attacks.

Speaking to reporters, he acknowledged that only veterans truly understand the fear, pain, anxiety and loss they experienced while fighting for our country’s freedom and rights. Then he added: Many of us do not know the sacrifice, fear, pain and loss that people of color endured for 400 years. My team reminds me every day that there are more important things than basketball.

Initially, the team was encouraged by the support of the crowd. One of the players, whose name was abbreviated in the documents released by the university, texted Shai: I appreciate this coach, not many men are willing to put their lives, their coaching careers and their [family] lives on the line for people of color. Thanks for being the person who stood up for us when others wouldn’t. You are a man of God, you have real character, and you live for the right purpose in life!

But after a few weeks, the pressure became too much. Shay’s agent negotiated a $450,000 severance package, and the coach resigned in late March after playing out the final two years of his $300,000-a-year contract. Nine players have also moved on. Coach Shay has struggled all year, Sadaidrin Hall, a freshman forward who left ETSU for Stephen F. Austin University, said in a Tri-Cities Holler political blog following Shay’s resignation. He was defending his players. Coach Shay lost his job because he stood up for the black community.

ETSU President Brian Noland said the players’ decision to take a knee has prompted Johnson City to think more about diversity, equity and inclusion issues in recent weeks than in generations. AP Photo/Kathy Kmonicek

ETSU has a complicated racial history, just like Johnson City or, for that matter, America itself. The university was founded in 1911 and was segregated until the first black student in 1957. Six years later, Tommy Woods, the first black player on the basketball team, arrived on campus.

In the beginning, Woods was booed and teased by fans at home games. Every time I scored two points or grabbed a rebound, I was booed by the student section. They were screaming: Where’s your dick? Go back to Africa, Woods told ESPN.

At one point, he considered dropping out of school, but his father convinced him to hang in there and said he would do better if he stayed true to himself. This has proved to be the case.

My senior year, in one of my last games, I had 38 rebounds and scored 29 points, something like that. And at the end, I think I made a mistake and they gave me a standing ovation, he said. I happened to be looking at the student section. And some of the people who had been booing me all along stood up and applauded.

During his career, Woods set several ETSU records in rebounding that still stand more than half a century later. The university named the men’s locker room after him in 2016, and by the time Woods was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame earlier this year, he had become a beloved figure.

If Woods has become an object of admiration at ETSU, so has basketball. The team attracts a lot of attention, its games taking place in the city’s 6,000-seat Freedom Hall community center and dominating local sports talk during the season.

He helped make ETSU a perennial winner. Since 2001, the team has had just one losing season and recorded at least 20 wins in 11 of them, including a 30-win campaign in 2019-2020. There’s a lot of love for basketball here, Wolff said.

The members of the team stand out at the university not only because they are something of a campus celebrity, but also because only 7 percent of the 14,000 students are black. Players and other black students at ETSU have sometimes been the victims of racist remarks.

In 2016, a white student appeared at a Black Lives Matter rally on campus as a counter-protester wearing a gorilla mask and coveralls and carrying a bag with a Confederate flag. The student then offered bananas to the protesters. The student was eventually convicted of disrupting the meeting, but charges of civil harassment and disturbing public order were dropped.

Three years later, the memorial to the university’s first African-American students and other parts of campus were covered with flyers that read: It’s good to be white – a seemingly innocuous phrase that the Anti-Defamation League says has been hijacked by white supremacists.

Noland and other university officials immediately condemned the incidents. But for many Johnson City residents, they are now part of a troubling picture.

I’m convinced that some people don’t want to talk about cultural and racial differences because those conversations cause a lot of pain and frustration, Keith Johnson, ETSU’s vice president for equity and inclusion, said in an email to ESPN.

A January proposal to create a racial equity advisory board in the city to steer local officials toward greater integration has been a point of contention since it was discussed at a city commission meeting. Some consider it a divisive issue, and it has not yet caught on.

When you start talking about a group in terms of equality and inclusion, that’s kind of code language for saying that straight people shouldn’t be treated, Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise said at the meeting. Instead of creating an advisory board that can pressure or embarrass the City Council, he believes minorities should be given real power on existing boards and commissions to address diversity issues in the city.

Civil rights activists said the mayor’s response was typical of a region that prefers to address racial issues quietly and within existing structures. It is not surprising that the basketball team’s protest has provoked such a strong reaction.

It highlighted the polarization that exists not just here, but across the country, Stephanie McClellan, publisher of the Johnson City Press, said in an interview. I think a lot of people recognize that racism exists, but they don’t necessarily recognize that it’s systemic. If they don’t know the people involved, it’s hard for them to understand.

Aaron T. Murphy, a local pastor and the only black member of the city commission, said the controversy over the ETSU protest had more to do with form than substance. Emphasizing that he was speaking for himself and not the commission, he said he believed the controversy over the players’ protest in Johnson City, where only 7 percent of residents are black, was more of a cultural and generational struggle than a racial one.

When we hold events in the city, only people of color participate, he said, adding: When you have basketball players coming from different areas, whether it’s Chicago, Memphis or Atlanta, they come from a different culture. When people want to be heard in their neighborhood, they kneel. The people in our area are not so receptive to that. The protest, he concluded, was just too much for this area.

Within weeks, the pressure became too much for head coach Jason Shay, who negotiated a $450,000 severance package with two years left on his contract. Nine players have also moved on: Coach Shay lost his job because he stood up for the black community. John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

THREE MONTHS after the protest, many Johnson City residents are wondering if the team’s action merely exposed a stark truth about the difficulty of addressing racial issues, or if it will be a catalyst for progress. So far there seems to be evidence of both.

After Shay resigned, protesters supporting the kneeling players showed up at Johnson City Honda, the dealership that had returned the cars loaned by the coaches. Justice for Coach Shay! They scanned.

Concessionaire Joseph Trujillo did not respond to ESPN’s interview requests. According to a biography on the ETSU website, Trujillo had a brother who died in the Vietnam War at age 19, and his father served 30 years in the military, fighting in the wars of Vietnam and Korea.

In an interview with local television station WCYB a few days after the announcement of the players’ protest, Trujillo said he disagreed with the players kneeling during the national anthem, though he grimly admitted that racial injustice is a reality. If they want to kneel before or after, I’ll go first, he said.

According to Noland, university officials have held more than 40 hearings and focus groups with students and community leaders on racial issues. He also appointed a task force to explore how ETSU can better support diversity and social justice.

We know that the solutions to these problems will not come from the top down, and that we must do everything in our power to engage the entire community in our movement forward, Noland said in an email to ESPN.

A week after Shay’s resignation, ETSU hired former University of Tennessee assistant Desmond Oliver as the school’s first black basketball coach. He said he didn’t spend much time remembering what happened when the team decided to take a knee.

The reality is we’ve moved on, Oliver told ESPN this week. We’re done with that.

So far, he has managed to convince at least two players who were expected to transfer – top scorer Ledarrius Brewer and his brother Ty Brewer – to stay.

Oliver said he met with the team as a group and one-on-one, because he wanted those guys to hear my story. Oliver was born into poverty to a single mother. But good grades in high school and hard work on the basketball court enabled him to go to college and graduate, and then get some coveted coaching jobs.

I even cried a little when I addressed the group because I was so excited about the opportunity to impact young lives, Oliver said. I realized this was my moment. I told them: No coach in America will care more about you off the basketball court than I will.

Several players who achieved senior status last season now plan to use the extra year the NCAA gave them because of the pandemic to remain at ETSU. Oliver also brought in several recruits, as well as transfers from Wichita State and Siena, and he says he has everything he needs for next season.

It was great – the encouragement I got from my boys, the bond I made with some of them, Oliver said. The children all found something similar in my story that resonated with them. In the first few weeks, he also met with sponsors and asked them to support the ETSU program, not by donating money – not yet – but by providing mentoring opportunities for their players.

However, Oliver has a tough task ahead of him to keep ETSU’s winning tradition alive and, perhaps more importantly, deal with any protests his team might want to stage in the future. When asked what he would do if his players knelt during the national anthem next season, he gave only an indirect answer.

When our communication is at a high level, you interpret a bad day differently than when you don’t communicate well, Oliver said. He added: We are grateful for the support we receive. And if there are things happening in our community that need attention and discussion, of course they will talk about it.

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