JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — A group of protesters gathered outside of East Tennessee State University on Tuesday evening to show support for former coach Jason Shay and men’s basketball players.
The protest took place one week after Shay resigned as head coach. His resignation came amid backlash from some community members and politicians after his team was seen kneeling during the playing of the national anthem at an away game in February. The team kneeled at two other away games too.
“Being a white male coach of a predominantly black basketball team, that’s a big deal to take a stand with your students especially in this climate today,” said Katelyn Yarbrough, chairperson for the New Generation Freedom Fighters.
The demonstration was a collaborative effort between the New Generation Freedom Fighters, NAACP, New Panther Initiative and TN/VA Mutual aide.
“The ETSU system, the Tennessee GOP and all the people that had anything to do with the situation are telling these athletes to ‘shut up and dribble’ and when it comes to social injustice — we’re not shutting up about the situation,” said Kemp Faneto with the New Panthers Initiative. “Once that First Amendment right is violated, that’s a detrimental issue to all of us, to our homeland in general.”
The protest was planned before the university announced Desmond Oliver as its next men’s basketball coach. He is the program’s first Black head coach.
“He’s black. We are excited about that but you can’t sweep under the rug what’s been going on here,” Yarbrough said. “He’s going to have to prove himself to the team that he is willing to back them up and support them. This isn’t just about a paycheck. This isn’t just about basketball.”
“We’re very supportive of coach Oliver,” said Tavia Sillmon of the Johnson City-Washington County NAACP. “We want him to know that he has the support of the community as well, and we want him to have the freedom to be able to do what he needs to do to make this program a success. And one of the ways to do that is changing the perception and letting him know that he is not alone.”
When asked about kneeling, Oliver told News Channel 11 that he will focus on improving players’ communication and their ability to talk to people and create change.
“I want by the time our by the time we start playing, the 13 scholarship guys that we have to be so much better at communicating using their ability to talk to people, to create change, that no one is going to ask that question here in another month because they are going to know, ETSU men’s basketball team is in the community and they will put that to bed,” Oliver said on Monday.
Sillmon said more conversations need to take place.
“We’ve got to have those difficult conversations that everybody is shying away from,” Sillmon said. “We’ve started some of those, but we’ve got to continue to have those and everyone has to examine themselves and see where they are in this dilemma.”
At one point, protesters took a knee in solidarity with Shay and the players.
“The community is involved whether we have big money or not. We see what’s going on, we want you to take care of our students. We pay money to send our students to this university,” Sillmon said. “We want you to take care of them and support them, teach them and guide them to be respectful and honorable students and you can’t do that if you’re squashing their First Amendment rights.”
About 100 people stood on the side of State of Franklin Road for about two and a half hours.
“The community isn’t a community without Black people in it and it’s really unfair that we can’t represent everyone,” said freshman Elliot Lucy. “You can’t oppress us forever. We are still going to be here. We are still going to yell and we are still going to march until things change.”
Those there, hoping their message is heard by administration and lawmakers, loud and clear.
“It wasn’t just us kneeling. It’s us justifying who we are as a Black community and understanding that the majority of their money comes from us no matter what,” said junior Amyre Cain. “Bring more diversity on campus but also educate yourself on why our African American community are kneeling for the flag or kneeling during the national anthem because it was built on systematic oppression.”
Another protest is planned for Friday afternoon from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Johnson City Honda.
“This won’t be tolerated. You are either supporting the team and the athletes and the entire student organization here at ETSU… you can’t just pick and choose what you like and what you don’t like especially when it comes to free speech,” said Yarbough.
That demonstration is also sponsored by all four social justice groups.
“We are against [the owner of Johnson City Honda] using his money, his pull, and his benefits for that and we’re wondering do most of the business leaders, all of the community feel the same way,” Sillmon said. “We know they don’t so we need them to step up in support of the Bucs.”