Democratic legislative leaders said on Thursday the controversy that began when East Tennessee State University basketball players knelt during the playing the National Anthem is part of a pattern of harassment of Black Tennesseans.
The remarks came during a weekly press conference held by the Democratic House and Senate Caucus leadership. Republican legislative leadership holds a similar recap of weekly action during the legislative session.
“We just need to talk about this alarming pattern,” said Clarksville Rep. Jason Hodges. “Political pressure forced (ETSU) Coach (Jason) Shay to resign because his players wanted to kneel over injustices we are seeing throughout the country.”
After ETSU players knelt during a Feb. 15 game at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, all 27 Republican senators signed a letter to the presidents of the state’s publicly funded universities asking them to prohibit athletes from kneeling during the National Anthem, an act that has become common among professional athletes over the last few years. The act of kneeling has generally come to be construed as a form of protest against racism and police brutality.
“We’ve seen black people protesting and we passed a protest bill that says they can’t protest. Black people crossed the street while protesting and we passed a bill that says they can be hit by cars. We pass bills against voting rights and kneeling but we say nothing about insurrectionists,” said Hodges, referring to the Jan. 6 incident in which a mob broke into the U.S. Capitol. “We should all be concerned about where we’re going and the pattern we are seeing.”
State Rep. Teri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, was present outside the Capitol building and posted video on her social media channels.
Rep. Yusef Hakeem of Chattanooga said ramifications of Shay’s resignation have larger outcomes than some officials may have anticipated and called the handling of the incident “appalling.”
“The senators were not thinking about the unintended consequences of their actions. There are coaches outside the state of Tennessee that feel like this is a great recruiting tool on their part — students will want to go to other schools,” said Hakeem. “Why would you want to deny a young person the ability to express themselves – in my view in a positive way – they aren’t out creating chaos and havoc?”
About half the members of the ETSU men’s basketball team announced their intentions to transfer to other schools after Shay resigned.
House Caucus Chair Vincent Dixie of Nashville said the ETSU controversy is part of a pattern of making life more difficult for all Tennesseans, not just Black ones, and creating solutions “for problems we haven’t faced.”
“This is the tip of the iceberg. We are going to continue to bring awareness and notoriety to this,” Dixie said. “This issue won’t be solved overnight and it doesn’t just impact Tennesseans it impacts the entire nation.”