Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens announced Wednesday he’s rescinding a controversial change that kept some cheerleaders from kneeling on the football field during the national anthem to protest police misconduct and racial inequality.
“While I believe there are more effective ways to initiate an exchange of ideas on issues of national concern, the right to exercise one’s freedom of speech under the First Amendment must be protected,” Olens wrote in a one-page letter to students, faculty and staff.
Olens had no additional comment, a KSU spokeswoman said.
KSU has been under the national microscope since five African-American cheerleaders took a knee during the anthem before the football team’s Sept. 30 game and the decision days later to keep all cheerleaders off the field during the anthem. Some students and organizations have argued the change violated the cheerleaders’ free speech rights.
KSU has said the change had nothing to do with the decision of some cheerleaders to kneel during the anthem. However, Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren boasted in text messages to state Rep. Earl Ehrhart that they convinced Olens to find a way to keep cheerleaders from continuing such protests.
The Georgia Board of Regents is conducting a special review of how KSU responded to the cheerleaders’ actions.
Davante Lewis, who’s acted as a spokesman for the five cheerleaders, said they will kneel on the field during the anthem when KSU has its next home game Saturday afternoon. Lewis said Wednesday’s announcement was political.
“I think this is a face-saving campaign because President Olens’ job was at risk and the credibility of the institution was at stake,” said Lewis, a brother of one of the cheerleaders.
Olens, the former Georgia attorney general and Cobb County commission chairman, was criticized by some as caving to pressure from longtime, politically-powerful friends who opposed the cheerleaders’ actions. Wednesday’s announcement may bring criticism that Olens has now bowed to pressure from those who opposed the prior change.
Olens and KSU officials have received scores of emails and telephone calls since the dispute went public. The controversy has come 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 of nearly 36,000 students, third-largest in the state.
Some students have held protests on campus in recent weeks, demonstrating against the change and other academic issues, such as Olens’ recent decision to remove the phrase “social justice” from some faculty job descriptions.
The five KSU cheerleaders 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. President Donald Trump said the NFL should fire players who kneel.
Since KSU’s prior change, the cheerleaders who’ve knelt during the anthem have done so in a tunnel under the stadium.
Olens ended his letter by saying he hopes the situation “will produce a constructive dialogue that leads to a greater recognition of and respect for all opinions.”