ETSU’s VP for Equity and Inclusion releases letter supporting basketball team’s silent protest


Johnson calls ‘disrespecting the flag’ claims ‘red herring fallacy’

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Longtime East Tennessee State University professor Keith Johnson released a pointed letter to the ETSU community Wednesday afternoon addressing the ETSU basketball team’s Feb. 15 protest prior to its game at UT-Chattanooga.

Johnson, who is vice president for equity and inclusion at ETSU, wrote that the team, which kneeled before the national anthem, “used that time to continue to bring attention to the racial inequities and injustices in this country.”

“The young men on our basketball team are not entertainers; they are living, breathing human beings who once they step off the court, have the potential to be the next George Floyd.”

Keith Johnson, ETSU Vice President for Equity and Inclusion

He wrote that head coach Jason Shay “made it perfectly clear” the team meant no ill intent to veterans or the American flag. He also recognized “there are servicemen and women, veterans, or family members of veterans who may be offended by the actions of our players,” but repeated his contention they meant no disrespect.

Johnson, who is black, pointedly wrote that the team’s players, most of whom are black, “are not entertainers; they are living, breathing human beings who once they step off the court, have the potential to be the next George Floyd.”\

Keith Johnson

He continued, writing that the players aren’t “one-dimensional” and that they have “dreams, visions and hopes of leaving this earth better than they found it.

“They are young men learning that they have voices and are discovering how to best use them.”

Read the full letter here:

Johnson referenced his own experience as an alumnus of North Carolina A&T State University, a historically black institution. Four students from that school, “known as the Greensboro Four,” gained national attention in 1960 when they occupied seats at a Greensboro Woolworths, asked for service, and refused to leave when denied that service – beginning what became a widespread sit-in movement.

Because of his tie to that movement as an A&T alum, Johnson said, “I can appreciate the desire and eagerness of young people to influence their community.”

Johnson took issue with those criticisms of the team members that have revolved around a claim they are disrespecting the flag.

“We believe that ‘disrespecting the flag’ serves as a red herring fallacy to divert attention away from police brutality, racism, and issues which create much deeper and broader conversations that people just are not ready to have,” Johnson wrote.

“If ‘disrespecting the flag’ were the real issue, uproar would have erupted on January 6th when violent rioters could be seen beating police officers with the American flag.”

Johnson, who also chairs the College of Business and Technology’s department of engineering, engineering technology and surveying, is ETSU’s second vice president of the office of equity and inclusion.

He assumed the role in fall 2019 after the death of Angela Lewis.

Johnson closed his letter by expressing the Office of Equity and Inclusion’s support for the student-athletes who took a knee Feb. 15. He wrote the office “will work with them to create a platform to allow them to evoke lasting changes in this region and beyond.”

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