May student athletes kneel without repercussions? Tennessee lawmakers clash

Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — State representatives voiced disagreements with university team members kneeling during the national anthem at a joint general assembly meeting Monday morning.

The interjection occurred during an update on the University of Tennessee’s Title IX when Sen. Mark Pody (R- Lebanon) wanted to expand the discussion to that of peaceful demonstrations at school athletic events.

This follows one week after the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team took a knee during the national anthem to raise awareness to systemic racism.

Pody said that “we all want to be respectful of someone’s First Amendment rights, but there’s a time for those to be expressed individually.”

“This would have to do with, actually, the ball players that perhaps are not coming out to stand for the pledge, or they’re out on the court — they’re kneeling and such,” he said. “It is a concern if they’re taking state money, in our state schools, in our uniforms and representing us.”

Another lawmaker pushed back, claiming that the silent efforts to spark conversation regarding racial injustices should not be suppressed.

“I would caution the university when trying to stymy the growth or the protests of students because they believe in a cause or they believe in something bigger than them,” Rep. Vincent Dixie (D- Nashville) said.


If we’re going to really try to not be divisive, what can we do to make people not want to kneel? What can we do to take that out of the equation? What is causing them to kneel in a peaceful protest? So, we can’t protest peacefully. We don’t protest violently. But you want to just hammer us down or the students down every turn. So, I would just ask you to proceed cautiously on how you address this.

Rep. Vincent Dixie (D- Nashville)

University of Tennessee’s Deputy General Counsel David Whitcomb reminded lawmakers that the university’s code of conduct protects student’s First Amendment rights; however, one local congressman questioned whether or not student athletes may express that on the court.

“Have you or your staff taken the opportunity to research the First Amendment right or privilege relative to when you’re in uniform as an ambassador to the university or when you’re out of uniform?” Sen. Rusty Crowe (R- Johnson City) asked Whitcomb. “Have you all taken a look at that…I think most of us are thinking that when you’re in that uniform and you’re acting as an ambassador for the university and the state, there is possibly a line there that differentiates that freedom of speech.

The complete exchange has been transcribed and is available below.

Sen. Mark Pody (R- Lebanon)

“I wanted to talk just a moment about student conduct as well at our state universities. This would have to do with, actually, the ball players that perhaps are not coming out to stand for the pledge, or they’re out on the court — they’re kneeling and such. It is a concern if they’re taking state money, in our state schools, in our uniforms and representing us. Is there any kind of conduct concerning that that the university has? I mean, again, I’m not asking for necessarily an answer unless you have one on this because it doesn’t have to do with this specific rule even though it is code of conduct. Do you have any comments on that?”

David Whitcomb

“I can tell you that our student code of conduct does protect people’s First Amendment rights, and I hear your comments, and I will be more than happy to take them back to the administration and share those comments with them.”

Pody

“I can appreciate that we all want to be respectful of someone’s First Amendment rights, but there’s a time for those to be expressed individually rather than say that they’re doing it as representing the university at that point and trying to say that that’s a university stand as well, so if they want to do that on their own, then that’s one thing, but if they’re going to put on our uniform and they’re going to be doing it publicly saying that we’re standing for the university, and that’s our view of the university, that doesn’t shed necessarily the light that I would say Tennessee would stand for in disrespecting our flag that way.”

Sen. Janice Bowling (R- Tullahoma)

“My concern along with several of the senators in particular when we became aware that this was beginning to spread within our college campuses what a young person does on their own time on their own dime that’s fine. But when anyone takes on a uniform and takes a scholarship, they’re standing on the shoulders of generations who have had blood, sweat and tears in order to provide the liberty, the freedom, the place, the taxes — all of these things that have taken place not just over night. Those people are represented by our country. That is our country; that is our state flag; that is our national anthem that unifies us, and for it to be used as a divisive thing is just not appropriate. So, is my opinion that we need to make certain their First Amendment? Certainly.”



“But when you accept a scholarship, go to a university, you’re talking about codes of conduct in a lot of different areas. And First Amendment is sacrosanct; I’m not — I would never resist anything that’s going to allow them to exercise their First Amendment on their own time. Absolutely. But when you are now part of a team, there are a lot of rules and regulations that you have to do that are different from the other students — ways you conduct yourself, ways you dress when you go out on the road, ways that — there are just things that are inherently part of being a team because then you are representing not yourself. You are representing the school, and the school represents Tennessee, and Tennessee shows preference to our time-honored people and institutions who went before us, and that doesn’t mean we agree or disagree, but we respect our heritage and our history. So, I would just say that. Please do check into that and see what can be done. In my opinion, and I can’t speak for the entire senate, but I know that there are many senators who would agree.”

Sen. Rusty Crowe (R- Johnson City)

“As general counsel, pursuant to the discussion we were having on the athletes, have you or your staff taken the opportunity to research the First Amendment right or privilege relative to when you’re in uniform as an ambassador to the university or when you’re out of uniform? Have you all taken a look at that…I think most of us are thinking that when you’re in that uniform and you’re acting as an ambassador for the university and the state there is possibly a line there that differentiates that freedom of speech. I don’t know. I’m just…have you all taken a look at that?”

Whitcomb

“First, let me correct you. You gave me a promotion; I’m deputy general counsel. I appreciate the confidence. In answer to your question, obviously this has gained a lot of attention particularly this past week, and we have begun to look at what the law says in that area…and we will continue to do so.”

Rep. Vincent Dixie (D- Nashville)

“To my understanding, when a student takes a scholarship as an exchange for playing athletics — it can be an athletics scholarship; it can be an academic scholarship — I think that when we go to college, we’re all young; we’ve all been there. And we learned to be aware of our environment and become aware of the causes that we do. I would caution the university when trying to stymy the growth or the protests of students because they believe in a cause or they believe in something bigger than them… when [Bowling] said blood, sweat and tears have gone into the heritage of a university, I find that…that comment was offensive when we talk about who actually built these universities — the backs of the people who built these universities. I hear the comments behind me, the, ‘good lords’ and all that stuff, but what you should do is if we’re going to really try to not be divisive, what can we do to make people not want to kneel? What can we do to take that out of the equation? What is causing them to kneel in a peaceful protest? So, we can’t protest peacefully. We don’t protest violently. But you want to just hammer us down or the students down every turn. So, I would just ask you to proceed cautiously on how you address this.”

Sen. Paul Rose (R- Covington)

“I think it’s interesting that when I came into this general assembly — the first time I’ve ever served in public office, there were things that I had to adhere to — codes of conduct. Chairman Raegan told me one day when I first came in I didn’t have my tie on, and he said come back when you’re properly dressed. I’ll never forget that. Now, I don’t know if that’s in the rules, but he made me believe it was…The company that I work for is a private company, but we expect the men and women who work there to conduct themselves in a certain manner. And being a private company, we have to abide by the federal trade laws and try to do the right thing and we’ve been successful in trying to do that…but we expect them to abide by what we said is rules of conduct. It’s interesting when we go to work for other companies, whoever it is. They expect the same thing. I can’t speak for Senator Bowling, but I think she really was talking about the men and women who laid their life down fighting for the freedom of our country, and I support that. Legislatively, I’m not sure what we can do, but I pledged to the folks in my district who have called me — my phone has been lit up with all the texts about what happened at UT and ETSU, and we may not be able to stop that, but I can promise my constituents and my colleagues that I’ll do what I can to make sure we have a code of conduct that is adhered to and we do it as much as possible totally within the bounds of freedom and First Amendment rights. I just can’t state enough how disappointing is it seeing our universities being disrespected and those men and women of all colors, all religions that gave their all for this country…if you’ve not been to Normandy, folks, you need to go…You realize how much it costs for us to be Americans…”

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