ALBANY, Ga. (WJHL) — A former standout shooting guard for East Tennessee State University said Wednesday he supports the current team’s decision to kneel for the national anthem and hopes university leaders will support their constitutional right to continue doing so.
T.J. Cromer also said he thinks the players’ message is probably less about Northeast Tennessee or their experiences at ETSU than it is about challenges confronting the entire country.
“I’m proud of the guys,” said Cromer, who led the Bucs in scoring during their last run to the NCAA tournament in the 2016-17 season before playing professionally for three years in Europe.
“I feel like they’re using their platforms to highlight an issue that’s going on, whether it’s in Tennessee, whether it’s back at their homes. You know, we never know what they dealt with before they become a student-athlete.”
He added that people “would be naive to say what they’re kneeling for isn’t obvious.”
Cromer, who keeps in regular touch with Bucs’ assistant coach and former teammate Desonta Bradford and first-year head coach Jason Shay, said he believes the players haven’t meant to disrespect military veterans or the flag of the United States when kneeling during the national anthem.
“I think the option that they chose, it made a lot of people angry but it also highlighted an issue that we have,” Cromer said. “So you know, whatever way to make problems better on earth, whatever ways we choose to do it, long as it’s improving us I think it’s ok.”
Cromer brought up the fact that when he played, the athletic program made a point for the players to interact with veterans.
“We always went to a veterans place and we sat and played bingo with the guys and talked to ‘em, so you know – we know that ETSU basketball are not doing it to disrespect the veterans or the flag.”
Cromer said he’d like to see people whose initial reactions have been angry show interest in two-way communication.
“I think they should want to have intellectual dialogue with the players just to see their standpoint, because what they’re doing is peaceful and they literally said they’re not doing it to disrespect the flag or anybody who represent the flag.”
He added that he expects the players would welcome such conversations.
“I don’t think those guys are close minded and only think one way. You know it’s always great to hear both sides of it.”
For his part, Cromer said he had a great experience playing two years in Johnson City after transferring from a junior college basketball program. He met his wife, Jazmin, in Johnson City and said the city embraced him and that he didn’t experience any poor treatment while at ETSU.
He did mention a well-publicized incident his senior year, when an early Black Lives Matter event drew a counterprotester who wore a gorilla mask and offered bananas to protesters.
ETSU’s administration reacted swiftly to that, and a second protest several days later — with no interruptions — drew close to 400 people, or about 20 times the number present at the protest that student Travis Rettke disrupted.
Cromer suspects that like him, the players have probably had generally positive experiences at ETSU.
“That’s a fan base that loves their players, especially once they’re successful, which they have been in (recent) years,” Cromer said.
“Who’s to know what they went through before they got to Johnson City. This is a nationwide issue, it’s not a East Tennessee State University issue, it’s not to bring negativity to East Tennessee State, because it’s a wonderful university.”
Cromer said he read about the letter 27 of Tennessee’s 33 state senators signed that essentially demands the state’s public university administrations prohibit players from kneeling for the anthem.
He hopes ETSU’s leadership will support what he believes is a right that doesn’t disappear when student-athletes put on uniforms.
“There’s a lot of backlash for sure, but … I just hope the university, the president, the coaches and everybody just get it right.
“To actually listen to their side and to understand and not just to listen to what they’re saying but actually what they’ve gone through, and understand that this is a nationwide issue, this isn’t just to pinpoint ETSU, this isn’t to pinpoint the Tri-Cities…
“So I just hope that they can get it right and not bow down to the politicians saying they can’t kneel, they can’t, you know, use their First Amendment rights.”