A handful of Kennesaw State University cheerleaders took a knee during the playing of the national anthem before a football game Sept. 30.
In the following days, both the local sheriff -- who is a Republican -- and a Republican state representative who chairs a subcommittee in charge of appropriations for Georgia’s public universities complained publicly in the local press. Both said the university president, Sam Olens -- a former Republican attorney general for the state -- had been helpful, and they expressed confidence that the situation would not happen again.
“During a recent conversation, Olens assured me that this will not happen again,” Sheriff Neil Warren told the Marietta Daily Journal in a story published Friday. “I hope he is right, because I stand with America, I stand to show respect to our military and all those that serve in public safety.”
State Representative Earl Ehrhart said that he suspected a directive regarding protests during the anthem would “come from the athletic department to the coaches to the team from the president.”
At the football game the following day, indeed, no one took a knee. In the days following the kneeling incident, a policy change was made to the pregame activities that kept the cheerleaders off the field during the playing of the national anthem.
But even though the new policy went into effect after two local Republicans complained to the university president, a former Republican attorney general, politics had nothing to do with the decision, a Kennesaw State spokeswoman said. According to Kennesaw State, the timing and political intricacies of the narrative are all a coincidence.
“The decision was made to change the pregame scripting by athletics. It is part of a number of changes that have been made by a new athletics administration as we continue to refine and enhance the game-day atmosphere for our fans,” Tammy DeMel said in an email.
Kneeling during the national anthem has become a form of political protest over the last year, since Colin Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, started kneeling during the anthem before National Football League games in an protest against racism and police brutality. The protest has drawn supporters and opponents, largely split along Democrat-Republican party lines, respectively. Opponents of the protest have said it disrespects the military.
Repercussions for kneeling during the national anthem aren’t unheard-of. On the same day that cheerleaders at Kennesaw found themselves off the field during the anthem, a football player at Albright College, a private institution in Pennsylvania, decided to take a knee during the anthem and was subsequently kicked off the team. The team had agreed to kneel during the coin toss and stand during the anthem, the college said in a statement. After the player knelt during the anthem, head coach John Marzka kicked the player off the team.
Presented with the timeline of the protest, the complaints and the implementation of the policy, DeMel said that the changes were organizational and logistical rather than political or related to the protest. Olens did not meet with either Warren or Ehrhart, she said, merely passed along information about the decision to change the pregame ceremonies to the sheriff after the change had been already been decided upon.
The decision was made by the athletic department Tuesday, DeMel said. Although the decision came after the protest, it was a logistical decision, she said.
As for how the decision “enhanced the game-day atmosphere,” DeMel said that the new pregame ceremonies filled a two-minute gap between the time when the national anthem finished and when the football teams took the field. Additionally, the new pregame ceremonies “afforded the Spirit Squad and mascot a more prominent introduction by being able to run out of the tunnel in a similar fashion as the football team.”
Cobb County political activists weren’t exactly sold on the university’s explanation.
“This is political, and it’s the politics of Cobb County enacting their power that they’ve used for years to silence minority students and silence those they disagree with,” said Davante Lewis, the brother of one of the cheerleaders, who added that the policy change “absolutely” seemed like a partisan decision.
The fact that there was not a national search for Kennesaw’s president before Olens was appointed -- a move that was controversial at the time, especially given Olens's lack of higher education experience -- made the decision even more suspicious for Lewis, who has been a part of four presidential search committees.
“He’s a former Republican attorney general. And when you hear a Republican state representative and a Republican sheriff issuing Republican talking points, I don’t think it’s very far-fetched to connect it and say, ‘Yeah, this was a political decision,’” said Lewis, who organized a protest against the decision Wednesday.
Deane Bonner, president of the Cobb County NAACP, called it a “very sad situation,” while praising the cheerleaders.
“We know it’s a political thing,” Bonner said of the university’s changes to the pregame ceremony. “We think [the cheerleaders] are heroes, as far as we’re concerned.”
Bonner also said calling attention to the flag and veterans, rather than focusing on the reason behind the protests, was misleading.
“If we’re talking about a free country, and equal rights under the law, constitutionally they have done nothing wrong,” she said. “When Rosa Parks sat on the bus, she wasn’t fighting public transportation.”