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Black coaches advocacy group urging athletes to weigh Tennessee GOP anthem push before committing to schools in state

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·4-min read

Advocacy group Black Coaches United is urging athletes who are being recruited by college teams in Tennessee to consider whether they should study and play in the state following a recent push by legislators to prevent players from taking a knee during the pregame national anthem.

BCU isn’t calling for an outright boycott of schools in Tennessee, which includes 11 Division I basketball programs, including SEC members Tennessee and Vanderbilt, plus traditional power Memphis. It is merely encouraging parents and recruits to take a long look into the environment within the state.

“We want to impress upon student-athletes that they have a tremendous amount of power in their voice and in their decisions,” said BCU executive director Paul Hewitt, a former college basketball coach who is now head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers' G League affiliate.

“If the state of Tennessee wants to take away the most basic of American rights, which is the right to peacefully protest, then while we don’t want to tell kids where to go to school, it has to factor into your decision,” Hewitt told Yahoo Sports on Thursday.

Earlier this week, Tennessee Republicans sent a letter to all the presidents and chancellors of Tennessee public colleges and universities urging them to “adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward,” the missive read.

The Tennessee Power T and Lady Vols logo is shown on the court before a game between Kentucky and Tennessee (Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Tennessee Power T and Lady Vols logo is shown on the court before a game between Kentucky and Tennessee (Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The letter, signed by each of the state’s 27 elected Republicans, came in response to the East Tennessee State men’s basketball team taking a knee during the playing of the anthem before a game on Feb. 16.

“We expect all those who walk onto the field of play representing our university to also walk onto the field of play to show respect for our national anthem,” the letter read.

ETSU coach Jason Shay said his players were not trying to disrespect the anthem or the American flag but simply wanted to raise awareness and prompt discussion about racial inequality in society.

“To say that somehow you are going to prohibit a young person from expressing their point of view in a very peaceful and respectful right is, we say, a violation of their constitutional rights,” said BCU general counsel Ricky Lefft, a former Air Force officer who now works as an agent for numerous college football and basketball coaches. “What we believe in is our constitution. The flag and the anthem are just symbols.

“Given the current climate, it's time for parents and high school athletes to start to take a hard look at the institutions that are recruiting them and see if those institutions and the state they are located in have their best interest at heart,” Lefft continued.

The BCU was founded last summer following the death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police. Its founding members include prominent coaches such as Tubby Smith, Leonard Hamilton and John Thompson III.

Hewitt, who led Georgia Tech to the 2004 national championship game during his 18-year college coaching career, said that young players today are both more in tune with the current political world and willing to be socially active in it than previous generations.

He expects many players and their families, regardless of their race, will consider the actions of the Tennessee legislature during the recruitment process.

“These kids are really aware of what is going on around them,” Hewitt said. “And I can’t tell you how impressed I am about them. They ask questions. They are curious. They truly want to see a better world. These kids aren’t going to just sit idly by.”

For example, last summer a number of prominent football players and coaches at the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State and other in-state schools successfully advocated politicians and the public in Mississippi to change the design of the state flag, which included the emblem of the Confederate battle flag on it. Previous efforts to change the flag had, for decades, failed.

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