The nervous cheerleaders prayed, hoping they were doing the right thing before Kennesaw State University’s Sept. 30 football game.
As the opening bars of the national anthem rang out and the crowd rose, five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders knelt, siding with National Football League players in a gesture intended to draw attention to police brutality and racism that has drawn the ire of President Donald Trump.
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” said first-year student Michaelyn Wright.
Few fellow students seemed to notice. That is, until Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren weighed in with the school’s new president Sam Olens. Before the next game, KSU’s athletics department decided that cheerleaders would no longer be on the field during the anthem.
Some longtime residents, political leaders and power brokers reacted angrily to the cheerleaders’ actions, saying they were out of bounds. Others are outraged at what they see as the university’s attempt to silence the students.
The controversy has put KSU on the national stage at a time of heightened sensitivity over race relations, patriotism and freedom of speech. It also highlights a widening divide between a traditionally conservative community that is growing more diverse and the progressive campus culture of a rapidly-growing university.
Olens’ handling of the protest has drawn praise and ire. His conservative supporters like the job he has done so far, but for some, the kneeling episode is confirmation of their worst fears about Olens, who took office in November.
Olens’ office cancelled an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Wednesday, citing scheduling conflicts. He said in brief, written responses to questions Friday that he wasn’t involved in the decision to change when cheerleaders come on the field and he wasn’t pressured to make any changes.
On campus, the drama brought home a national protest movement that caught many students by surprise.
“With everything going on in the NFL and what Trump’s been saying about the teams and everything, I didn’t think that would ever happen here,” said Kendall Metoyer, a sophomore majoring in sports management.
Once a small commuter school in north Cobb, KSU has grown. It merged with Southern Polytechnic University in Marietta in 2015 and added on-campus housing and a football team. Some 35,000 students are enrolled at KSU — about a third are from Cobb or Cherokee counties. African-American student enrollment has doubled over the last 10 years from about 11 percent to more than 21 percent.
When Dan Papp retired as KSU’s president last year in the wake of compensation rules violations, Olens, a former Cobb County Commission Chairman and Georgia Attorney General, was put as the only candidate for the job — to some surprise and consternation. Olens had no teaching or higher education administrative experience.
Supporters countered he could clean things up at KSU and was uniquely qualified. Sam, they said, is a Cobb guy. He arrived at KSU in November at a time many conservative Cobb leaders and boosters felt the university was becoming more liberal. They were appalled by an art exhibit last year that included a painting of a naked man with a clown mask engaged in sex with a skeleton and images that criticized conservative leaders.
“I feel like they’ve slipped to the left a little bit,” said Bob Best, 54, a lifelong Cobb resident who manages a heating, ventilation and air conditioning company.
In some ways, so, too has Cobb. Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the county in last year’s presidential election. The last time that happened was 1976, when Georgia’s Jimmy Carter was on the ballot. The population is also changing. The percentage of white residents has declined from 62 percent in 2000 to 53 percent last year, U.S. Census Data shows. The decline is steeper in the schools, where the Georgia Department of Education says 38 percent of students are white.
With that change has come greater scrutiny of the type of issues that prompted the cheerleaders to kneel. Lisa Cupid, Cobb’s only African-American commissioner accused an undercover police officer of racial profiling when he followed her home one late evening in 2015. Cobb officials said the officer’s actions were within department guidelines while acknowledging Cupid was “understandably” frightened. In August, a white Cobb police lieutenant was caught on a traffic stop video telling a white motorist “we only kill black people.”
Cupid said she was “disappointed” that Sheriff Warren seemed to go after young people for expressing their political views.
“That’s not a way to encourage or connect with those who are typical change agents in our society,” Cupid said, referring to the college students. “The burden should not be on that kind of institution to carry the weight of representation. In fact, that burden shifts back to our leadership to recognize that their representation should reflect the diversity of their community.”
Olens largely avoided racially-charged disputes during his political career. Many African-American leaders in metro Atlanta have described him as pragmatic. His 11 months at KSU have been, like him, low-key. Olens has talked about growing graduate programs, focused on improving how KSU works and quietly met with his critics.
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart, a Republican from Cobb, credits Olens for, what the lawmaker said, is making KSU “more conservative.”
“He brings a calm, legal perspective that we are going to treat everyone equally under the law,” Ehrhart said of Olens.
Olens, though, has also faced criticism for his recent decision to remove the phrase “social justice pedagogy” from two job descriptions. Some faculty members said the phrase is meant to express goals of ensuring professors treat all students fairly, and it’s been previously used at KSU and other colleges. Olens, though, worried the phrase may be seen as a political litmus test.
KSU professor Scott Ritchie said the president’s office typically does not get involved in job ad descriptions. Ritchie worries it will discourage some prospective faculty members from working at KSU.
“Regardless of what the upper administration says, (social justice pedagogy is) in our standards,” Ritchie, an associate professor of Language and Literacy Education, said in an interview. “It’s not something we came up with to be rabble rousers. It’s something that’s common in the field of education.”
Such disputes occur at most college campuses. A national controversy over cheerleaders does not.
The five KSU cheerleaders — each African-American — began talking in mid-September about kneeling during the anthem. They paid attention to the year-long debate over some NFL players — beginning with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — getting on one knee during the anthem to raise awareness about police brutality and racial inequality across the nation. Trump last month began blasting players who kneel, calling it disrespectful.
The national discussion prompted the cheerleaders to act.
“We kneel for equality,” explained Shlondra Young last week. “We kneel to highlight social injustice and to highlight police brutality and kneel in honor for those who unjustly lost their lives and for those who could not kneel for themselves. We kneel in a city where a Confederate culture still exists amongst some and issues like this are placed on the back burner.”
To many in Cobb, those comments are abhorrent or the words of ill-informed teenagers. Cobb is home to the Dobbins Air Force Reserve Base and a Lockheed Martin facility, a major military supplier and arms maker for the federal government. They are two of the county’s top 10 employers. More than 11 percent of its residents are older than 65, the highest percentage of metro Atlanta’s four largest counties.
The cheerleaders said one fan heckled them on Sept. 30. Friends and family cheered on the young women.
Sheriff Warren complained to Olens, who assured the sheriff it would “not happen again,” according to a media report. The sheriff he was “shocked” by the “lack of respect for our flag,” the Marietta Daily Journal reported.
Warren is known for his hard-line stance on illegal immigration and close cooperation with federal immigration agents.
In 2010, KSU student Jessica Colotl, an immigrant who entered the U.S. without authorization, was flagged for deportation for driving without a license. Warren had her rearrested on felony charges for allegedly lying about her address just days after she secured a one-year deferment to finish her studies. The charges against her were later dropped.
Some of the cheerleaders, already nervous about negative reactions to the kneel down, were scared when they read the sheriff’s quotes.
The sheriff’s comments alarmed many students, said Madeline McGee, a senior at the school and news editor for the student newspaper, The Sentinel.
“Up until then, there was no discussion of it,” McGee said. “I think a lot of students were concerned on two fronts: One, that the sheriff could potentially abuse his power to put a stop to the demonstration, and also that Olens, who is the highest level here at the university, would kind of placate him in that mission.”
So far, no retaliatory action has been taken against them, the cheerleaders said. Warren declined an AJC interview request.
KSU’s athletics department decided the week after the Sept. 30 kneeling that cheerleaders would no longer be on the field during the anthem. Shaun King, a Black Lives Matter activist with Atlanta ties, heard about it and sounded the alarm in a tweet to his 838,800 followers. The cheerleaders were now part of the national dispute.
KSU officials said the change is one of several by its athletics department in recent weeks to “improve the fan experience.” The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech’s cheerleaders are on the field during the anthem, according to its spokespeople. KSU’s athletics department has insisted the change was not in response to the actions of the cheerleaders who knelt.
Many students don’t buy KSU’s explanation.
“I don’t, not for one second,” said Wright, a first-year student.
Olens, who championed transparency as attorney general, told the AJC the decision was made solely by the athletics department. He holds meetings continuously with students and groups on campus and will continue to do so, he said in an email.
Ehrhart is one of many who called Olens. He heard from several constituents about the kneel down and they weren’t happy. Neither was Ehrhart, an influential lawmaker whose committee helps decide how much is budgeted for higher education in Georgia.
Olens said he’d also received many calls about it as well, Ehrhart recalled.
Best said messages were sent to Olens by he and other local business owners that they may no longer give money to KSU if actions like cheerleaders kneeling continue. Best said he’s given KSU about $500 in recent years.
Ehrhart said he didn’t ask Olens to stop the cheerleaders from taking a knee.
Ehrhart believes there’s plenty of places on campus for students to discuss important issues. The football field should not be one of those, he says. Few are allowed on the field, he noted, describing it as a “restricted venue.”
Imagine, Ehrhart said, if band members wore “Make America Great Again” baseball caps on the field or a band member had a Biblical sticker on their instrument.
“It would be a circus,” he said.
Esther Osim, a senior KSU public relations major, now believes administrators will step in and interrupt any protest if they disagree with its message.
“I don’t really feel like I have freedom of speech at Kennesaw,” Osim said. “It makes me disheartened.”
Sophomore mechanical engineering major Brooks Gillam doesn’t believe it was the best venue for the cheerleaders to convey their message. Gillam did, however, acknowledge that he comes from the perspective of a “privileged, white male” from a military family.
“[A player] kneeling for the national anthem, that means something for him, and he’s standing up for what he grew up with and kind of fighting out of that oppression,” Gillam said, “versus me, where it’s like, I’m not going to kneel during the anthem.”
The cheerleaders said in a group interview last week they’ll continue to kneel — in the stadium tunnel — at KSU home games. The next one is Oct. 21, homecoming weekend.
“We are going to continue to kneel until that flag represents what it should,” said Young, a junior.
McGee, The Sentinel’s news editor, said the cheerleaders’ and the administration’s actions over the coming weeks will determine whether the issue dies down or escalates.
“I think for a school like KSU, which is not necessarily a nationally-recognized name, it certainly has great implications for the direction we will be taking as a school,” McGee said. “How the administration chooses to respond to this issue has implications on our reputation, on our donor base, on enrollment, and I think that potentially how they respond to it could impact our future significantly.”