Tennessee lawmakers on Monday sent a letter to each of the state’s nine public Division I universities, encouraging them to enact policies to prohibit athletes from kneeling during the playing of the national anthem.
Each of the state’s 27 Republican senators, including Lt. Gov. Randall McNally, signed their approval of the notion in the letter, which was addressed to the universities’ respective chancellors and presidents. The move seems to be a direct response to the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team, whose players knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a Feb. 16 game against Tennessee-Chattanooga.
The practice of kneeling during the national anthem has become commonplace in recent years after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick popularized the action. Athletes of all levels have used their platform to peacefully protest issues of police brutality, systemic racism and racial injustice.
Tennessee Republican senators, however, described the practice as “disrespectful.”
“While we recognize our student-athletes may express their own views on a variety of issues in their personal time, we do not condone any form of protest that could be viewed as disrespectful to our nation or our flag while they are representing our state universities,” the letter reads. “When they don the jersey of a Tennessee university, they step out of their personal roles and into the role of an ambassador to our state.
“To address this issue, we encourage each of you to adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward.”
ETSU coach Jason Shay and president Brian Noland both backed the team’s actions, saying it didn’t intend disrespect but sought to prompt discussions of racial inequality. According to The Tennessean of Nashville, state senators questioned the act in a Monday meeting with a representative of the University of Tennessee’s general counsel team.
“The First Amendment is sacrosanct,” Sen. Janice Bowling said (via The Tennessean). “I would never resist anything that’s going to allow them to exercise their First Amendment on their own time, absolutely. They’re representing the school and the school represents Tennessee and Tennessee shows preference to our time-honored people and institutions who went before us. We respect our heritage and our history.”
Tennessee senators’ recommended action could become a First Amendment issue among the state’s public universities; the school’s counsel member said students’ First Amendment rights were protected by its code of conduct. Earlier in February, however, private NAIA university Bluefield College forfeited a men’s basketball game after the university president suspended players for kneeling during the anthem.
The Tennessean’s report notes that lawmakers have successfully cut funding to public universities as means of curbing functions they found offensive. To that end, state Democrats have warned universities to proceed cautiously.
“If we’re going to really try to not be divisive, what can we do to make people not want to kneel?” said Vincent Dixie, chairman of the Tennessee House Democratic Caucus. “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, on every turn.”