ETSU records reveal university scrambling on multiple fronts in basketball kneeling controversy

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President Noland told trustees of businesses, leaders pulling support

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The weeks following a Feb. 15 News Channel 11 image of East Tennessee State University’s men’s basketball team kneeling for the national anthem involved a frenzy of communication on many fronts, a public records request shows.

News Channel 11 received more than 500 documents Wednesday after requesting them March 15. Taken in their entirety, they show a tumultuous period lasting into mid-March as President Brian Noland, athletic department staff and others in the campus community dealt with everything from national media requests and state political blowback to boosters saying they would pull funding from the university.

“Politician (sic) play the short game … just get elected.. Leaders play the long game, do what is right today leads to a better tomorrow for all involved.”

ETSU Trustee steve decarlo email to brian noland, Feb. 20

Highlights include:

  • Communication with several trustees after a heated Feb. 19 BOT meeting;
  • Responses to a Feb. 23 letter from all 27 Republican Tennessee senators condemning the players’ actions and calling for policies preventing players’ kneeling;
  • Text messages between Head Coach Jason Shay (who since resigned) and players early in the controversy expressing overwhelming support for his willingness to support their choice of expression;
  • A faculty senate resolution supporting the players as well as multiple other intra-campus actions related to the issue;
  • Acknowledgment from Noland to trustees that some businesses and leaders had “step(ped) away from the institution in protest.”
  • Dozens of emails from alumni and community members expressing opinions on the issue — some angry and profane, some more measured.

What also emerges is a consistent push from Noland to see the tension move the community from a high degree of polarization over the issue to what he describes in more than one email as the emergence of “healing, tolerance, understanding, and empathy.”

Image creates a tsunami

News Channel 11 posted an image of the players kneeling, shot by sports reporter Jesse Krull, after the team’s Feb. 15 game at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The records show that within three days, the community was abuzz with both support for the players’ action and condemnation of it.

A Feb. 19 Board of Trustees meeting criticism of Noland’s “handling” of the basketball situation brought the matter into the national spotlight. Records show Newsweek asked for comment Feb. 20 as did Fox News and The Washington Post on Feb. 24.

On Feb. 23 the state senators sent their letter and by Feb. 25, ETSU government relations director Bridget Baird was running point on a request from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) stemming from the senate brouhaha.

THEC’s Lou Hanemann had sent emails to all state university leaders after THEC was “charged with collecting and collating the Student Codes of Conduct for each of the universities and (providing) that to select members of the Senate.”

Hanemann said the inquiry was “connected to the ongoing discussion relative to athletes kneeling during the National Anthem and similar situations,” and also asked whether universities had specific student-athlete codes of conduct.

Donors, community, students and staff all weigh in

The backlash from some donors began even sooner than the Tennessee senators’ did, as an email exchange between Noland and a trustee reveals.

ETSU Trustee Steve DeCarlo, an alumnus and Charlotte, N.C. resident, emailed Noland the morning after the Feb. 19 trustee meeting. He told him “your comments were fantastic” and that he thought Noland had “handled the issue with grace and openness.”

DeCarlo also said — days before the Tennessee Senate letter — that “politician (sic) play the short game … just get elected.. Leaders play the long game, do what is right today leads to a better tomorrow for all involved.”

In response, Noland said he had spent his morning “with two significant business leaders who were pulling their support for the University. After those meetings, one has decided to stay and the other told me that they will sleep on it let me know in the morning of their decision.”

He also said “this too shall pass” and that he “rest(s) easy at night knowing that you and others will support our leadership as we attempt to navigate choppy waters.”

C. Don Royston, an ETSU National Alumni Association Award of Honor winner, sent an email saying he was ‘disgusted with the actions of the team’.  

“I see difficult days ahead for your fundraising efforts,” he wrote Associate Athletic Director for Development Jo Anne Paty on Feb. 21.

And in a March 1 email to trustees, Noland acknowledged the punishment that had been meted out by some unhappy supporters.

“We have witnessed individuals and entities step away from the institution in protest, pulling gifts, scholarships, and corporate support,” Noland wrote.

Highly opinionated messages also came from both sides on the issue. One person emailed Noland Feb. 23 saying he should take the same approach as Bluefield College’s president, who told players they’d be suspended if they continued to kneel for the anthem.

“Grow a pair, Mr. Noland; and discipline the team in a fitting manor (sic),” the email read.

An opposite opinion came in an email on Feb. 21 which stated, “please thank the players for bringing more awareness to racism. Please don’t be a crusty white #$@* like the state reps…”

Most community emails, though, were much more respectful and many people wrote at length. Numerous people on both sides laid out their thoughts and arguments carefully.

Expressions like the two mentioned above represented a distinct minority among the emails, though Noland did note in a March 1 letter to trustees that he had been “struck by the polarizing nature of these discussions. Unfortunately, this issue mirrors many aspects in our society in which individuals are entrenched in their positions, unable to find common ground.”

A yearning for common ground, though, permeated a number of the emails. So did recollections of racism either directly suffered while at ETSU or in the area, or in the case of white alumni, of seeing friends suffer it.

Noland responded personally to at least two emails that had offered support, prayers and a desire to see ETSU lead the community in an ongoing conversation about racial tension and social justice issues in general.

In a response to Gordon Ball, who had written a letter to the editor supporting the players’ right to their form of protest, Noland included this line — which was also in at least one other response to a supportive email:

“(M)any in our region have thought more about issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the past week than it may have in a generation,” Noland wrote March 1. “I am hopeful that from this tension will emerge healing, tolerance, understanding, and empathy. Thank you again for your email and I remain hopeful that this moment in time will be transformational.”

And while numerous veterans expressed dismay or even outrage at the players’ action, some other veterans wrote that they supported it. One active duty alum, Charles Jones, emailed Noland and also local state representatives Rebecca Alexander and Tim Hicks as well as State Senator Rusty Crowe.

He said as a result of the kneeling, “I’ve never been prouder to be an ETSU graduate. President Noland, I sincerely hope you stand by these young folks.”

Jones called on the politicians to “keep your oath” to defend the Constitution.

“There are some actions that I cannot take to protest the injustice and inequality that continue to have a heavy hand in our nation’s economic and sociopolitical life,” Jones wrote. “(K)neeling during the playing of the national anthem is one of them. I relinquished this freedom to protect the freedom of other citizens, not so that their constitutionally guaranteed dissent could be summarily squashed while folks hmmm and haw about tradition and heritage..”

Veteran David Hays, though, took a different tack. Haws emailed ETSU’s vice president for equity and diversity, Keith Johnson, after Johnson published a letter supporting the players.

Hays started by saying he appreciated Johnson’s “recognition that there are servicemen and women, veterans, or family members of veterans who may be offended…” But he took issue with Johnson’s criticism of the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, asked whether “diversity excludes patriotic thought and belief,” and compared the death of Capitol protestor Ashli Babbitt with Johnson’s contention that Black ETSU players “have the potential to be the next George Floyd” when they step off the court.

Hays suggested that claim requires police action and that such police involvement “would require some sort of action on the part of these men that would precipitate such involvement.”

“I would like to believe that our student athletes, or any students for that matter, would not be engaged in activities that would necessitate intervention by law enforcement,” Hays wrote. He added that he continues “to support and protect the rights of all individuals guaranteed by our Constitution” and that he “look(s) forward to discussing this further if you so desire.”

Faculty, staff weigh in

Around the same time he was receiving pressure from state senators — including what was arguably a dressing down by state Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) in a March 3 Senate Education Committee meeting — Noland’s own faculty senate was offering a completely different response to the kneeling.

Faculty senate president Stephen Hendrix emailed Noland Feb. 22. Hendrix informed Noland the senate had suspended its bylaws to add a resolution supporting the players as an information item to its agenda.

A day later all 27 GOP state senators sent state university leaders a letter calling for limits on athletes’ freedom of expression.

That same day, ETSU faculty senator and business professor Fred Mackara polled his fellow College of Business professors about the resolution in support of the players.

The faculty resolution said ETSU had quote “an exceptional responsibility to protect the free exercise of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.”

It also said silencing, ignoring or minimizing peaceful student action conflicted with ETSU’s mission.

Noland addressed the differing views in his March 1 letter to ETSU’s Board of Trustees.

“Our campus has also gained the attention of the General Assembly, and I am in Nashville this week working to mend those relationships,” Noland wrote. “While the external environment has been active, our campus has also been active as our students, faculty, and staff have risen in support of our student athletes.”

He said he was proud of campus leaders’ efforts to find a middle ground and create opportunities for discovery and discussion.

The faculty senate motion passed 37-7 at its March 8 meeting after lengthy discussion, according to meeting minutes. Hendrix sent it to Noland and said in his email message that it called for ETSU to support students “as they serve as ambassadors for social justice in our local and national communities.”

Throughout the controversy, several ETSU faculty members were internally applauding Noland’s handling of the matter.

Doug Taylor, an associate dean within the Quillen College of Medicine, wrote to Noland following state senators’ criticism during the March 3rd budget hearing.

“Mr. President, I witnessed your “ambush” by some of our elected officials on the news yesterday and want to congratulate you for the way you handled yourself and them,” said Taylor.

In another email to Noland, Department of Literature and Language Chair Dr. Daniel Westover also expressed disappointment in the comments of elected officials.

“We simply cannot allow these young men to be painted as unpatriotic or deviant,” he wrote on Feb. 22.

Support for Shay comes from players, faculty

Phone screenshots were submitted by Jason Shay as part of the open records request.

ETSU basketball players sent grateful texts to their coach after he publically spoke of his support for their protest. The student-athletes’ names were redacted in the phone screenshots.

On February 21, a player texted Shay, “Appreciate it coach not to many men would put their life, coaching career, and families life on the line for colored people. Thank you for being that one man to stand up for us because other’s wouldn’t do it at all. You’re a man of God, have true character, and living for the right purpose in life!”

On February 26, a player sent Shay the following: “I know you’ve sacrificed a lot for us and a lot of stuff has happened that we may not see or know, but you are still standing with us and haven’t changed.”

ETSU faculty members were also reaching out to Shay, saying they stood behind him and the players.

“If sports donors are offended enough by these constitutional actions to pull donations, they are only proving they never really cared about the broader mission of ETSU in the first place. They just wanted to enjoy the unpaid labor of Black athletes without ever being confronted by the injustices facing the Black community,” wrote Rachel Walden, an associate dean within the Quillen College of Medicine. 

Another faculty member emailed Shay, asking if players would consider recording their personal stories to help raise awareness of social justice concerns for teaching purposes.  

“To be able to offer my students a content-relevant conversation that has been invited by your team, I would therefore like to extend an invitation to members of your team to share any stories they may have about experiencing inequity, bias, or discrimination in education,” wrote Associate Professor Alison Barton of the Department of Educational Foundations & Special Education. 

On February 19, an unknown party texted Shay, “I absolutely support the players decision to quietly kneel. People are missing the point.”

Shay responded, “Just want people to be open-minded about racial issues in our country. Would never do anything to disrespect or disappoint our service men and women.”

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