In northeast Tennessee, a controversy over the decision by college basketball players to take a knee during the National Anthem continues to reverberate across the campus and community, with the looming possibility state lawmakers will act to punish any future protests by student-athletes at public campuses across the state.

On February 15, players and coaches on the East Tennessee State University Buccaneers’ team linked arms and knelt in protest against racial inequalities and injustices during Black History Month at an away-game against the Chattanooga Mocs. 

Within a week of the game, which the Buccaneers narrowly lost, 27 Tennessee Republican state senators signed onto a letter urging each of the state’s public university presidents and chancellors to “prohibit such actions going forward.” 

Lawmakers grilled ETSU President Brian Noland in routine budget hearings at the Tennessee Legislature, which has the power to decide the school’s funding going forward. And many of the school’s fans and boosters threatened to withhold support, including the prominent owner of Johnson City Honda, who repossessed the vehicles he had, for years, lent to coaches and staff for their use.

Senate letter 2
senate letter 1

Last week, Buccaneers head coach Jason Shay abruptly resigned. Shay, who is white, was just one year into a three-year contract and walked away with a $450,000 severance package.

Protests drew hundreds in Johnson City Tuesday afternoon in an event organized by the Washington County NAACP and other local civil rights groups, including the New Panther Initiative, TN/VA Mutual Aide and New Generation Freedom Fighters.

Another protest is planned Friday outside the Johnson City Honda dealership owned by Joe Trujillo, the alumnus who sits on ETSU’s foundation board who reclaimed the vehicles lent to Shay and his assistant coaches. Trujillo did not respond to a request for comment.

“It doesn’t feel like home for me anymore,” said Sadaidriene Hall, one of at least seven Black players to announce his intentions to transfer to another school following Shay’s resignation.

Hall said he left the campus on the same day his coach announced his resignation at an emotional team meeting.

During a Black Lives Matter protest in 2016, a student showed up dressed in a gorilla mask and offered bananas to participants. In 2019, fliers that said ‘It’s okay to be white’ were plastered around campus.

Shay didn’t tell his players why he was resigning and his players didn’t ask, Hall said. They “did not want to ask him because he was under so much pressure and we didn’t want to add to it. We knew he was heartbroken.”

But, Hall said, he was convinced the team had been upended by political and community pressure over their Black Lives Matter-inspired protests.

“It’s been a lesson learned,” said Hall, speaking from his Texas home, where he is learning remotely in his ETSU classes. Hall said uncles and cousins who have served in the U.S. Army had given him the green light to protest, saying they had protested injustices abroad and it was up to Hall to protect injustices at home.

“Even when you protest peacefully, people are going to reject you” Hall said.

The issue has roiled the predominantly white campus, which has had its share of racially-tinged controversies in the past, according to Debbie Harley-McClaskey, a professor emeritus of leadership studies who has worked on the campus for 35 years.

“I am absolutely appalled that student-athletes’ First Amendment Rights are so easily trampled,” Harley-McClaskey said.

During a Black Lives Matter protest in 2016, student Tristan Rettke showed up in a gorilla costume with a burlap sack emblazoned with a Confederate flag and marijuana leaf, rope and bananas.

Rettke offered the bananas to BLM participants and was later seen in a video kneeling to tie the rope around the fruit.

An all-white jury cleared Rettke of felony civil rights intimidation charges.

And in 2019 white supremacist fliers were found distributed around the campus, including on a memorial for the school’s first African-American students, saying “it’s okay to be white.”

Noland denounced the fliers as an attack on his campus and values.

Shay earlier this year spoke to his players’ decision to protest racial injustice in a press conference, saying “it was a decision our team made prior to the season as a call to action and empowerment against racial inequalities and injustices.” 

“I’ve got a lot of Black players and I stand behind them and whatever they had to endure throughout their lives,” he 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. We hold those heroes near and dear to our hearts, including two generals that have served our country right here in our backyards. 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.”

Former East Tennessee State University basketball coach Jason Shay. (Photo: Twitter)
Former East Tennessee State University basketball coach Jason Shay. (Photo: Twitter)

“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. My team is a daily reminder to me that some things are just bigger than basketball.”

Shay did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment. An ETSU spokesman noted Tuesday’s protests were not “an event hosted by ETSU. Our public safety team will be there to help ensure safety.”

Joe Rexrode, a senior staff writer with The Athletic, said it is “very unusual for coaches to leave after one year or get fired after one year unless something fairly dramatic happened off the court.”

“Clearly it does not have to do with performance,” he said.

Featured photo: Several hundred people gathered at East Tennessee State University to show support for basketball players who took a knee during the National Anthem at a February game and subsequent resignation of Coach Jason Shay. Photo: Kate Craig