JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Keith Johnson’s written support of the ETSU men’s basketball team’s decision to kneel for the national anthem didn’t come out of nowhere, and ETSU’s vice president for equity and inclusion is hoping the team’s symbolic act doesn’t lead nowhere.
Johnson spoke with News Channel 11 Thursday, the morning after releasing a letter to the ETSU community and about a week after the team’s silent protest sparked a firestorm of controversy.
He talked at length about the players’ backgrounds and experiences and how those have likely shaped their passions about racial injustice.
He said even before the protest, his office had been working with ETSU athletics about helping players meaningfully communicate their life experiences with the community during their time there.
“One of the things I have a great appreciation for is our students defining their voices, and then helping them to determine a platform to be able to get results and responses and that sort of thing based on what their desires are,” Johnson said.
In the case of the basketball team’s protest — first publicized after the Feb. 15 game at UT-Chattanooga — Johnson said it’s an example of the early expression of passion. For the players, it’s rooted in their experiences as black Americans growing up in other places.
“They’re from all parts of this country and they are coming with so many lived experiences,” Johnson said.
All but one of the players on this year’s roster is black and he said many people who live in this region could be quite unfamiliar with some of what they’ve experienced.
“They’re talking about inequities and injustices in this country as it relates to them.”
Johnson said protest is typically the result of passion and that the student-athletes are in a unique position to be able to help people learn more about the roots of that passion — and what changes they are seeking whether locally or nationally.
“So I’m going to be working with coaches and working with the athletic director to help them define what those type of things are that would have lasting impact and help them to better position themselves … to be able to do that,” Johnson said.
He said players are already discussing next steps. He hopes to be part of those discussions and help mentor them through the process.
“I want them to be incentivized to take the lead and allow me to help assist them in what they want to do,” Johnson said. “I’m not gonna give them a list of things they need to do to impact the region. It’s all about them at this particular point and we just support them in their efforts.”
Speaking of support — what about the kneeling?
Johnson said his support extends to the form of protest the players employed — but that doesn’t mean he’s convinced one way or the other that it was the ideal method.
“Is kneeling at a game the best approach to get the attention that they need? I’m not sure,” Johnson said.
“Did kneeling get the attention? Of course it did. Individuals who decide that they want to protest have to decide on what is most appropriate for them.”
And he said he remains convinced it wasn’t meant to disrespect veterans — but realizes some may have thought otherwise.
“I understand when veterans may be offended by the actions of these players. I really get that. No, I have not served in the military. But my dad did, and many of my other relatives, uncles, have served as well. So I understand.
“But when I talk with these student athletes it’s clear to me that they do not have any ill intent. They’re not trying to disrespect our service men and women who put their lives on the line and some (of whom) have even lost their lives.”
Johnson described the responses of his father, who was a Korean War veteran, during the national anthem when he would take him and his brother to Baltimore Orioles games as kids.
“He was in a position and a space as if my brother and I weren’t there. He was taking advantage of that time for himself.”
But Johnson’s father didn’t back down from protest and action just because it might have offended some people, Johnson said.
“He really worked hard for civil rights in North Carolina, to the point where he was fighting against voter suppression. He went as far as suing Halifax County in North Carolina and he won.”
Johnson said equating lawful, peaceful protest with disrespect for the county or veterans creates a false dichotomy.
“If you want to protest and it’s peaceful … you should be able to do that. As long as you don’t disrupt other people.”
For now, Johnson said he and other staff in the office of equity and inclusion are acting as sounding boards in hopes that at some point the community can point to something that went beyond symbolism.
“We’re doing a lot of listening. A lot of listening.”