NewsNewsChannel 5 Investigates


Emails about ETSU players kneeling reveal Tennessee's racial divide

Posted: 6:05 PM, May 06, 2021
Updated: 2021-05-06 20:00:59-04
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ETSU Kneeling Clipping 3.jpeg

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — New emails show how an act of protest, where athletes knelt during the National Anthem, exposed Tennessee's bitter divide over race and racism.

The emails, obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates through a public records request, reveal how Tennesseans reacted after a photo emerged in February showing the East Tennessee State University basketball team taking a knee in protest of racial injustice.

Much of the venom was directed toward then-coach Jason Shay, who defended his players' decision to engage in the act of protest during Black History Month.

"You dumb b*****d," said a handwritten note across a clipping of a newspaper story, which was included in the emails. "Let them leave such a bad country. Enough!"

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Clipping sent to ETSU Coach Jason Shay

Republican lawmakers had expressed outrage about the act of protest with Sen. Jon Lundberg of Bristol declaring in one legislative hearing that "I don't see a difference between kneeling for that flag and holding a finger up to that flag."

East Tennesseans, Lundberg said, were upset about the incident.

The emails include some that reflect racially charged tones, and some deny the existence of racism in America.

"Why would anyone attend your anti American anarchist school for promoting dumb a** blacks," wrote one person. "Can your black athletes even write?"

One mother emailed, "My son is white. Can he apply for a scholarship based on his skin color???? NO! Well, then that makes the WHITE boy oppressed!"

Another person wrote, "You're a communist piece of garbage for supporting those spoiled crybabies for kneeling during the National Anthem. Racism isn't a problem, America-hating b*****ds like you are the problem."

Other examples:

  • "Until we as a society stop categorizing race, race relationships will never get any better.... If one cannot make a statement without using the terms Black, White, Hispanic, etc., then they're the racist."
  • "I would like to know how these young men think they have it so bad.... In my opinion there is no racial injustice in this country, only in the minds of small people."
  • "Most of these young people probably have no idea why they are kneeling other than some nebulous statement of call to action against injustice and inequality.... At its core, the movement that has led to all this kneeling and various public displays is anti-American."
  • "No I'm not racist because I have black friends and I consider them family, and they don't act this way.... Stop the nonsense."
  • "This social justice thing has gone to far and most folks are just plain tired of hearing off of the whining.... Get over yourself already and move on."

Still, other emails saw the method of protesting racial injustice as a personal affront.

"I served in battle and laid my life on the line for our flag for our nation," wrote a Marine veteran. "For young men to show such blatant disrespect is not exercising free speech, it's exercising disrespect."

Another man emailed, "It's nothing more than a middle finger to conservative America. Without an apology, I'm done with ETSU athletics."

Other examples:

  • "They spit in the face of my friends who died in combat ensuring they have a privilege to play a game. Stop making excuses for the behavior by saying 'we just don't [know] what they went through."
  • "Kneeling for the flag does nothing but divide.... It is an act of hostility and aggression designed to purposely offend and hurt others to make my pain your pain."
  • "Your hatred for America knows no bounds. Want to kneel at MY ANTHEM AND MY FLAG, then do it on your own f**king time. Will never spend another dime at your crappy university."

In fact, there were frequent mentions about the potential loss of financial support for the school.

"The university has been blessed financially by many gracious alumni and area businesses - this behavior is a slap in the face to them," one man wrote.

"We are East Tennessee not Chicago, Detroit or Minneapolis - our people don't behave in this manner."

But the emails also included video sent to university officials of an on-campus Black Lives Matter protest and revealed deep concerns about racism on the East Tennessee State campus.

"We've had our fair share of horrid things that have been done to our students who have tried to show solidarity with larger African American movements," wrote one member of the campus community.

"They tolerate KKK flyers on their cars, fools in ape suits with a noose, prominent African American leaders' plaques covered."

Another person emailed, "Anyone who doesn't empathize with them doesn't understand the racial injustice still going on in our community today.... Racism is rampant in our community."

Several current and former members of the U.S. military also expressed support.

"As a female veteran," one woman emailed, "I am proud that I served this great nation to come back home and see freedom of speech in front of my eyes."

Other examples:

  • "I am the wife of a retired Air Force veteran..... Kneeling is NOT disrespectful. It is the most respectful way I can think of to protest the systemic racism that still exists in our country."
  • "Kneeling for the National Anthem is not now and never has been about the flag nor the military.... As a Black female who once wore the uniform, I was disrespected and also refused service while wearing the uniform. While I love my country, my country disrespected me then, and does at times today."
  • "I much prefer this mode of protest to an armed insurrection. I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that the same people who are furious about young (Black) men who kneel quietly during the anthem are fine with armed (White) people forcing their way into the Capitol unlawfully."
  • "They were not dishonoring veterans, but protesting REAL injustices that occur in their community. We need to see the harm that has been done and continues to be done against people in this country, including this region."
  • "It is a peaceful way of stating a disagreement with how this country is run. Every American has a right to protest peacefully. IT IS THE AMERICAN WAY!!!"

Then, after ETSU president Dr. Brian Noland spoke out against the student athlete's decision to protest in such a fashion, he also faced intense criticism.

"I'm a veteran with a deployment under my belt," one email read. "If you're going to call your team disrespectful, you Sir are idiotic. The First Amendment is there specifically to protect actions like what your basketball team is doing."

An area doctor emailed, "They peacefully exercised their free speech right, and you condemned them for it. This is conduct unbecoming of a university president."

One ETSU fan added, "If sports donors are offended enough by these constitutional actions to pull donations, they are only proving they never really cared about the broader mission of ETSU in the first place. They just wanted to enjoy the unpaid labor of Black athletes without being confronted by the injustices facing the Black community."

Another wrote, "We need to be publicly praising these young men for reminding the rest of us what citizens of conscience look like."

Other examples:

  • "You chose to put the selfish and ignorant views of uninformed business leaders, congressional representatives and regional racists above those of the students and staff you are supposed to represent."
  • "Quietly kneeling is a respectful way to honor our country while bringing attention to the serious racial issues that face black citizens every day. For anyone to say otherwise is to not only show contempt for our constitution, it is to perpetuate the disregard for black voices and serves to bolster their reason for protest."
  • "You are perpetuating the very racism that these players are protesting against. Your responses are racist."

After the controversy erupted, coach Shay resigned - and ETSU agreed to pay him $450,000 to not coach.

Several players also decided to leave the team.