‘Putting that knee down gave the bird to our flag sir’: Questions raised about men’s basketball team kneeling during state budget hearing

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL)- A hearing about university budgets in the Tennessee Senate Education Committee turned into a debate about the ETSU men’s basketball team kneeling before a game last month.

Tennessee Senator Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol) began questioning ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland Wednesday evening after stating it was the day the Star-Spangled Banner was adopted.

Lundberg directly asked Noland several questions, including if the actions of the team and coaches were representative of the university.

“I think what you are seeing here are students who are making their voices heard. As you look across our institution, we have a diversity of students, a diversity of perspectives, and a diversity of opinion. I realize that many in our region are extremely hurt by this image. I do not feel that our students meant any disrespect to veterans, to our flag, or to our country,” Noland said.

The team was captured on video by News Channel 11 kneeling before last month’s game at Chattanooga. An ETSU official confirmed the team has done so prior to other games this season as well.

Lundberg continued his questioning and addressed Dr. Noland by saying in part, “…and frankly sir, in my mind, putting that knee down gave the bird to our flag sir and I don’t see a difference, tell me what that difference is.”

Noland responded by saying, “Sir, I deeply regret the feelings of pain and animosity that have emerged across the region. As our players said in their own words on Saturday, they did not intend to disrespect those who have served or the flag. I recognize the pain this has caused and as a university, we are committed to bringing people together to heal the issues that have emerged to rebuild relationships that have been damaged.”

Lundberg pressed the same question saying, “Again sir, what’s the difference?”

Noland said in response, “Sir I understand your perspective.”

Lundberg also asked Noland about the timeline of events.

“I was made aware in November that the team had discussed with Coach Shay their desire to speak out against social injustice across the country. At that point in time sir, we were preparing for what would have been away games. Games were being canceled left and right,” said Noland. “We then played multiple basketball games without an incident… and that focus in time sir, we were squarely centered on COVID and the health and safety of our student-athletes.”

Lundberg also questioned Coach Jason Shay’s social media activity that had been brought to his attention by “sources.”

“I think that the actions of our faculty, our physicians and the individuals I described are reflective of the actions of this institution, Noland said. “I cannot speak for Coach Shay’s actions on the day in which this picture was taken.”

Tennessee Senator Rusty Crowe (R- Johnson City) also addressed the team kneeling before the game, at one point becoming emotional when talking about the flag.

“When I see the star, that first star on our flag, I think of my dad who flew 31 missions over Europe and he would not have made it back, he would not have made it back if it weren’t, he flew a B-24, if it weren’t for the Tuskegee Airmen, those black pilots that protected, that protected his life, and the life of his crew, and so this really isn’t a black thing, this is not a black-white thing, it’s just a patriotic thing, it is something that our kids need to learn,” Crowe said.

Crowe also said that he believed playing the national anthem and “honoring the flag” at every game was a policy of the university.

“Why would you play it and then see all the fans stand at attention with their hand over their heart if you didn’t expect that to be an honor that the university would provide for each athletic event,” he asked. “They’re not out mowing lawns to go to school, they’re getting scholarships and they’re getting all the help they could ever hope to get to go to school because those that went before them and represent that flag.”

After Lundberg and Crowe were finished speaking, Tennessee Senator Raumesh Akbari (D – Memphis) took a few moments to address the situation. She is the only committee member who didn’t sign a letter to state university administrators asking them to stop athlete actions that could be offensive.

“You cannot tell people who have been the victims of racial injustice how they get to protest and how they get to feel and what they get to do. This has nothing to do with being patriotic,” Akbari said. “For us to make this an issue that comes to the highest levels of state government in a budget presentation no less, is so disheartening.”

But in an interview after the hearing, Lundberg said it was appropriate.

“We often talk about not just budget but other things happening with those colleges and at those schools so it’s not uncommon at all to go into other avenues besides the budget,” he said. “It’s one of the few opportunities you have because you have those individual Presidents before us.”

News Channel 11’s Anslee Daniel asked Senator Lundberg why University of Tennessee President Randy Boyd was not questioned about the Lady Vols basketball team kneeling during a game earlier this year.

He said he isn’t sure but Northeast Tennessee is his main concern.

“I representing Northeast Tennessee… that’s an important part of what we’re going through right now. We’re all going through this,” Lundberg said.

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