A week after five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders kneeled in protest during the national anthem before a KSU home football game, the squad was noticeably absent when the anthem was played prior to Saturday’s 48-3 rout of Texas Southern.
The decision to keep cheerleaders off the field until after the national anthem Saturday evening was not prompted by students taking a knee ahead of the Sept. 30 game against North Greenville, said Mike DeGeorge, the university’s assistant athletics director for communications and broadcasting.
The university’s football players are not introduced at home games until after the anthem is played.
KSU spokesperson Tiffany Capuano said the decision to have the cheerleaders off the field during the anthem was made as part of a suite of changes to the way the university handles games.
“The decision was made to change the pregame scripting by Athletics. It is part of a number of changes that have been made by a new Athletics administration as we continue to refine and enhance the gameday atmosphere for our fans,” Capuano said.
Other changes Capuano pointed to include painting the KSU logo at midfield, the addition of metal detectors at gates and more loudspeakers by the student section. KSU Athletics staff meet after every home game, Capuano said, and the decision involving the cheerleaders was made on Oct. 3.
The cheerleaders and mascot will continue to be “staged in the tunnel before their entrance (and during the anthem), and that will continue,” Capuano said.
NFL players started kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” last season as a way to protest racial injustice in America.
But the form of political expression grew in popularity in recent weeks after President Donald Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who kneel ahead of football games during a campaign rally in Alabama. The president’s call prompted the league’s owners to release statements in support of their players who choose to protest, and many athletes who remained standing during last year’s anthems have joined in, locking arms with their kneeling teammates along NFL sidelines.
On Sept. 30, five of Kennesaw State’s cheerleaders brought the protest to Cobb, simultaneously dropping to one knee in the end zone of Fifth Third Bank Stadium as the marching band began playing the national anthem.
Critics say protesting the anthem disrespects the flag, the nation and the men and women of the armed services, and some KSU fans in attendance during last week’s game were taken aback by what they saw.
Among them was Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren, a season ticket holder who said he was shocked to see the cheerleaders take a knee.
“My wife, Penny, had tears in her eyes, and we were both shocked to see such a lack of respect for our flag, our national anthem and the men and women that serve our nation,” Warren told the MDJ last week.
EHRHART PRAISES OLENS
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, chairs the House subcommittee in charge of funding Georgia’s public universities. He didn’t shy away from making his feelings about the protest known to the MDJ on Friday.
“The bottom line for me in all of this is if you’re on an athletic team, I don’t care what political statement you’re making, even if it’s repugnant and hateful like the ones those cheerleaders made,” he said Friday. “If you want to make a political statement, do it in the middle of the public quad and that’s your right in this country.”
On Monday, Ehrhart praised KSU President Sam Olens and the university for its “professional” handling of the protests and the decision to keep the cheerleaders in the locker room ahead of Saturday’s game.
“This is a football field,” Ehrhart said. “Play football. You’ve got a publicly (funded) platform to protest by yourself. If you’re going to turn this into a free speech venue, then you have to let everybody in.”
Keeping the cheerleaders in the locker room before the anthem is the ideal way to handle the situation, Ehrhart believes.
“If you see anything beyond that, I think you’re going to open it up to maybe not having those events out there or you’ll have those events with everybody under the sun allowed to come protest, because if you allow one protest, i.e. cheerleaders and their hateful, disrespectful kneeling toward police officers — I don’t care what they say — you have to allow everyone else,” Ehrhart said.
Dismayed fans who reached out to Ehrhart last weekend following the North Greenville game, he said, were “thrilled” not to see a repeat performance at the stadium Saturday.
“They absolutely don’t think it’s a free speech issue,” Ehrhart said. “They think it’s a bunch of spoiled children who want to make a hateful gesture, and they think the university is handling it just right.”
‘A CONFEDERATE CULTURE’
One of the squad’s cheerleaders took to social media after last week’s game to explain her thoughts on the matter.
“Today, I kneel for equality, I kneel for social injustice and I kneel for those who unjustly lost their lives and are no longer here to kneel for themselves,” she wrote on her Facebook page along with a video of her and four other cheerleaders dropping to one knee as the “Star-Spangled Banner” began. “I kneel in a city where a Confederate culture still exists among some and issues such as this are often placed on the back burner. I kneel in a city where I am a minority. But most importantly, I kneel for unity in a country that needs it the most right now.”
KSU also released a statement on the rights of students to protest the anthem at sporting events.
“Kennesaw State University believes that it is important to honor the national anthem,” the statement reads. “It is equally as important to respect the rights of individuals as protected under the first amendment."