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Texts That Undercut a President

New questions are being raised at Kennesaw State after local politicians boasted about influencing the president’s decision on how to respond to a racial protest movement.

October 19, 2017
 
Sam Olens

Newly unearthed text messages show the Cobb County, Ga., sheriff and another local Republican official bragging that they influenced the decision that led to Kennesaw State University’s cheerleaders being removed from the field during the national anthem.

On Sept. 30, five cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem before a Kennesaw State football game. The university's original explanation was that -- despite public complaints about the cheerleaders from Sheriff Neil Warren and State Representative Earl Ehrhart, both Republicans -- the decision to keep cheerleaders off the field for subsequent games until after the anthem finished playing, which went into effect the week after the protest, was completely coincidental, not related to the protest and made by the institution’s athletic department.

But the text messages show the politicians boasting about how they maneuvered the change with the president.

“Thanks for always standing up too [sic] these liberal that hate the U.S.A.,” Warren texted Ehrhart.

Kennesaw State President Sam Olens “had to be dragged there but with you and I pushing he had no choice. Thanks for your patriotism my friend,” Ehrhart wrote back.

The texts were reported Tuesday by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which obtained them via a public records request. On Wednesday, the University System of Georgia issued a statement saying it would conduct a "special review" of the allegations that the decision to remove the cheerleaders was a political one.

In a statement Wednesday, Olens -- a former attorney general -- said that the timeline of the events was being misconstrued. He said the decision to change the pregame activities had been made by the athletic department -- and he had been informed of that decision -- before he spoke to Warren.

"In hindsight, I regret how the events over the past two weeks have unfolded and admit that the circumstances could have been handled better," he said. "I believe that a university should be a marketplace of ideas, encouraging free expression and open dialogue. To that end, I welcome the opportunity to meet with the cheerleaders and any student who wishes to participate in a discussion about how we can work together to continue to make KSU a university of which we are all proud."

Olens previously told the Journal-Constitution that no outside pressure at influenced the decision to remove the cheerleaders from the field during the national anthem, and he stood by that narrative in his statement Wednesday.

“Decisions about game-day programming is [sic] the responsibility of KSU's Department of Athletics and they have been clear about their reasons for making the adjustment,” he told the Journal-Constitution last week.

Kennesaw spokeswoman Tammy DeMel laid out a similar story to Inside Higher Ed last week, saying a number of changes have been made to the pregame ceremonies "to refine and enhance the game-day atmosphere for our fans."

Olens’s appointment as president of Kennesaw State last year was controversial, scrutinized in part because of his lack of academic background and anti-gay stances he took during his political career. Olens was appointed without the formation of a formal search committee, prompting fears that his appointment was a political one.

In another text, Warren bragged that removing the cheerleaders from the field was his and Ehrhart’s idea.

“Not letting the cheerleaders come out on the field until after national anthem was one of the recommendations that Earl and I gave him!” he said.

The cheerleaders, as well as local activists, doubted Kennesaw State’s story before the text messages emerged, and Tuesday’s revelations only added to that doubt.

"We are deeply disheartened by the revelations revealed in these messages. We were exercising our First Amendment rights in the most American way possible," the cheerleaders, under the moniker The Kennesaw 5, said in a statement. "We took a knee for a purpose and we continue to kneel for this cause. These text messages only leave us with more questions on how the university handled this situation. We would hope the university would defend its students from political leaders. To this day, President Olens has not met or requested a meeting with us. We are owed a meeting and to have this matter addressed publicly."

Davante Lewis, the brother of one of the cheerleaders, said the University System of Georgia was obligated to investigate the decision behind removing the cheerleaders.

“The board has to answer to their decision” to pick Olens in the way that they did, Lewis told Inside Higher Ed. “They didn’t conduct a full national search, they did not present multiple candidates to the faculty, students and community, and they kind of bowed to what seems to be political pressure.”

Lewis said the narrative laid out in the text messages did not surprise him.

“It is what I expected to find,” he said. “This now deepens the power that faculty and students have been talking about for months since his appointment -- that he is not comfortable being an academic, but is comfortable being a politician -- and is answering and making decisions based on the politics of those choices.”

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