Texts show Cobb sheriff, lawmaker pushed KSU president on cheerleaders

7:16 p.m Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017 Local
Sam Olens photographed in his attorney general’s office. We talk to incoming Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens about his decision to leave the attorney general’s office, how this all came about and what’s he going to do to address the criticism about him from students and faculty. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart boasted in a series of text messages about pressuring the president of Kennesaw State University into keeping the school’s cheerleaders off the field during the national anthem in response to several kneeling in protest.

The text messages, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained under the Open Records Act, appear to contradict the official story by university President Sam Olens that the decision to delay the timing of the cheerleaders’ entrance onto the field for football games was made by the athletic department and had nothing to do with the protest.

“Legally I’m not sure they can stop or do anything to stop someone from this Un America ACT [sic],” Warren wrote to Ehrhart. In a different message, he reported that he had talked to Olens and been “assured” that the cheerleaders would not be on field until after the national anthem, which once had been the practice but at some point changed.

“Thanks for always standing up too [sic] these liberal that hate the USA,” Warren wrote to Ehrhart, who chairs the committee that allocates funds to public universities.

In a follow-up message, Ehrhart seemed to confirm that Olens had caved to pressure: “He had to be dragged there but with you and I pushing he had no choice. Thanks for your patriotism my friend.”

In another text, Warren wrote, “Not letting the cheerleaders come out on the field until after national anthem was one of the recommendations that Earl and I gave him!”

Some National Football League players — beginning with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — began taking a knee during the anthem to raise awareness about police brutality and racial inequality across the nation. President Donald Trump has blasted players who kneel, calling it disrespectful. Still the demonstrations have spread to include others.

The protesting cheerleaders, who have become known as the Kennesaw Five, have said they knelt during the anthem at a Sept. 30 football game to protest injustice and racism. Many in the community, including Sheriff Warren, took offense, accusing the young women of disrespecting the flag and the military.

The controversy has tested the leadership of Olens, whose appointment last year sparked protests by some students and faculty who saw him as a political appointment with no job experience in higher education. Olens formerly served as Cobb County chairman and state attorney general.

Davante Lewis is brother to Tommia Dean, a sophomore and one of the Kennesaw Five. He wrote in a statement that the text messages vindicate fears about Olens’ appointment.

“Sheriff Warren and State Rep. Ehrhart showcase they will use their power and political connections to dictate changes at Kennesaw State,” he wrote. “President Olens has a duty and a responsibility to finally tell the entire story.”

David Corinthian, a fifth year engineering student who organized a protest Monday in support of the cheerleaders, said the messages display “systemic issues.”

“It’s scary to see the lack of real leadership in KSU,” he wrote. “The president of any university should … respect their faculty, staff and students.”

Olens could not immediately be reached for comment. A spokesperson for Warren said the sheriff had nothing to add.

Olens canceled a scheduled interview with the AJC last week, but responded in writing to a series of emailed questions, including: “Was there any pressure or demands from any individuals and organizations to change the policy regarding cheerleaders at sporting events?”

“No,” Olens wrote. “Decisions about game day programming is the responsibility of KSU’s Department of Athletics and they have been clear about their reasons for making the adjustment.”

KSU officials had said the change is one of several by its athletics department in recent weeks to “improve the fan experience.”

Ehrhart also had denied that he asked Olens to keep the cheerleaders off the field. In an emailed statement Tuesday, he said his private comments to Sheriff Warren expressed his personal feelings, and he stands by them.

“I urge President Olens to stand firm against any student publicly disrespecting our flag at a football game or any college event,” he said. “I say that as a private citizen.”

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