Every member of the GOP in the state senate signed a letter that encourages university leaders to punish protesting athletes after basketball players at East Tennessee State University kneeled during the national anthem.
The letter says that the lawmakers "do not condone any form of protest that could be viewed as disrespectful to our nation or flag," and argues that athletes should protest in their "personal time".
The letter is addressed to 10 chancellors and presidents of state universities in Tennessee and encourages them to "adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward".
Nashville Public Radio reported that Republican state senator Rusty Crowe said during a hearing on Monday: “Most of us are thinking that when you are in that uniform and you are acting as an ambassador for the university and the state, there possibly is a line there that differentiates that freedom of speech."
East Tennessee State University basketball coach Jason Shay backed up his team, telling Johnson City Press that his players meant no disrespect to veterans and others who have defended the United States.
He said: “Our intentions by no means involve disrespecting our country’s flag or the servicemen and women that put their lives on the line for our nation," adding: “No one knows the sacrifice, the fear, the pain, the anxiety, the loss that they’ve experienced fighting for our country’s freedom and rights. But many of us don’t know the same sacrifice, fear, pain and loss the people of colour have had to endure over 400 years."
Mr Shay added that his team is a "daily reminder to me that some things are just bigger than basketball".
After players kneeled in protest, Republican Tennessee House Representative Diana Harshbarger wrote on Twitter: “I’m disappointed to see the ETSU basketball team take a knee during the national anthem. This is disrespectful to everyone who fought or died to protect our freedoms. We should stand proud with our hands on our hearts or saluting the flag during the anthem.”
Johnson City Press reported that East Tennessee State University trustee Kelly Wolfe said: “When you’re a member of that team I think you have a higher obligation to this university than just saying and doing anything that you want."
Concerning the firestorm surrounding the players' protest, university president Brian Noland said: “When you put on a uniform, you take on a unique responsibility, and I know that the actions of the past few days have caused tension and strife and emotion within our community. I also know that we’ve had a lot of purposeful and intentional conversations regarding social justice and equity and structural disparities in our region. Those conversations are healthy and healing and I know that they’re going to plant seeds that will allow roots to grow for change."
GOP lawmakers in the state have tried to quash peaceful racial justice protests in the past, passing a bill in August 2020 making camping on state property a felony after protesters advocating for an end to police brutality and racism spent weeks in the square in front of the state capitol in Nashville.
The Independent has reached out to the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus for comment.