KSU didn’t follow guidance on cheerleader kneeling

Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens did not follow state guidance when the university made a change that kept cheerleaders from kneeling on the football field during the national anthem, a report released Tuesday concluded.

University System of Georgia officials told Olens and the presidents of its public universities during a two-day October meeting that taking a knee during the anthem is free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution and should not be interfered with, unless it causes a disruption. Any changes by a college should be discussed with the USG.

The Saturday after that meeting, KSU implemented a change that kept its cheerleaders in its stadium tunnel before the anthem. That was a week after five cheerleaders had first taken a knee on the field. Olens did not discuss the change with USG officials, who learned about it through an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

“President Olens was aware of the proposed change three days before it was implemented and did nothing to stop the change,” the report said. “President Olens also did not advise the University System Office of the proposed change, though he was instructed to do so earlier that week.”

The report also questions KSU’s explanation that the change to the program before football games was unrelated to the kneel-down, citing the timing of the change.

Some organizations have argued KSU’s change violated the students’ free-speech rights. The report does not say if the University System believes KSU committed such a violation.

The five-page review is a rare rebuke of Olens, who’s been one of the state’s most influential leaders for the past two decades. Olens is the former Georgia attorney general, Cobb County government and Atlanta Regional Commission chairman. He was named KSU’s president in November 2016. KSU has about 35,000 students, the USG’s third-largest enrollment.

A KSU spokeswoman referred questions about the review to the USG. A USG spokesman said it has discussed the report with Olens, but declined further comment. The report does not mention nor suggest any disciplinary actions against Olens or any KSU officials.

Davante Lewis, a spokesman for the cheerleaders who’ve knelt, said the report does confirm KSU’s change was in retaliation for them exercising their constitutional rights. Lewis did say the report does not answer some questions, such as who initiated the change.

“President Olens has a professional and personal obligation to publicly answer these questions,” said Lewis, a brother of one of the cheerleaders.

The Georgia Board of Regents ordered a special review into how KSU responded to the kneeling after the AJC published text messages by state Rep. Earl Ehrhart and Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren suggesting they successfully pressured Olens into keeping the cheerleaders off the field.

Ehrhart and Warren called Olens and other KSU athletics officials several times, saying the cheerleaders should not be on the field during the anthem. Olens and other KSU administrators, who were interviewed by USG officials, insisted they did not make the changes in response to those calls. Warren declined comment. Ehrhart did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Olens, the review said, learned about the change the day after the USG meeting from an athletics department official, who said it was being done “to improve fan experience.” Olens said they could go ahead with the change, although he didn’t understand its significance, believing KSU would now be in line with other USG campuses, the report said. However, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia allow cheerleaders on the field during the anthem. One KSU official, Mike DeGeorge, twice raised concerns about the timing of the change, according to the report.

USG officials and Board of Regents members sent numerous emails about the change, emails received Tuesday by the AJC through an open-records request show. Some board members wanted clarity about KSU’s actions. Board member Dean Alford was dismayed.

“Free speech does not allow you to wear the uniform of our institutions and then be disrespectful,” Alford wrote.

Many longtime KSU supporters have made similar complaints, describing the cheerleaders’ actions as unpatriotic.

Olens announced earlier this month that cheerleaders can be on the field during the anthem. Several cheerleaders knelt during Saturday’s game.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Education

Spanking still allowed in Georgia, U.S. schools
Spanking still allowed in Georgia, U.S. schools

To spank or not to spank: That debate is once again in the headlines. The Tennessee Legislature on April 17 passed a bill that bans the spanking of disabled children at public schools. If signed into law, the measure would bar school officials from using corporal punishment on kids with disabilities, unless their parents give written approval...
Raising black student enrollment at UGA still a challenge
Raising black student enrollment at UGA still a challenge

Amalie Rosales asked a group of African-American students at a University of Georgia reception in Atlanta a question that reflecting concerns about what she will face as an incoming minority student. “How do you view diversity on campus?,” asked Rosales, 18, a senior at Sandy Creek High School in Fayette County. Freshman Caleb Kelly, a...
Participants fewer, passion same in new metro Atlanta student protests
Participants fewer, passion same in new metro Atlanta student protests

A handful of schools across metro Atlanta participated in National Walkout events Friday, with activities and messages that varied in shape, scale and focus, on topics from gun control to police brutality. The events were held Friday to coincide with the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, when two students opened fire inside their Littleton...
State report finds accounting errors by Georgia Piedmont Technical College staff
State report finds accounting errors by Georgia Piedmont Technical College staff

Georgia Piedmont Technical College officials have made several errors in processing student aid, according to a state report released Friday. The report by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts comes as federal education officials and the Technical College System of Georgia conduct a wide-ranging review of the metro Atlanta college’s...
DeKalb Schools: Sickout’s second day sees more bus drivers delivering students
DeKalb Schools: Sickout’s second day sees more bus drivers delivering students

A sickout staged by DeKalb County School District bus drivers resulted in transportation delays for the second day Friday. About 224 bus drivers were absent Friday, compared to 383 who were absent Thursday, according to an absentee report received by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the school system. Andre Riley, a schools spokesman, said there...
More Stories