The Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus has sent a letter to the presidents and chancellors of each of Tennessee’s public universities – including University of Memphis President M. David Rudd – urging them to enact policies that would prohibit student athletes from protesting during sporting events, specifically kneeling during the national anthem.
The incident that sparked condemnation on Twitter by multiple Tennessee Senate Republicans and inspired the drafting of the Feb. 22 letter occurred at a men’s basketball game between East Tennessee State University (ETSU) and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) at the McKenzie Arena. According to reporting by The Tennessean, members of the ETSU team dropped to one knee during the pre-game playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
“The singing of our national anthem should be an opportunity for public universities to honor veterans,” tweeted Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, as he showed his support for the letter. “It shouldn’t be a time for students representing our colleges to express their personal political views.”
Echoing McNally’s sentiment, Sen. Ed Jackson tweeted an image of the letter while writing: “Tennessee student athletes should not disrespect our flag, period.”
In their letter to university presidents and chancellors, the Republican Senate Caucus wrote: “During athletic competitions, our student athletes represent not only themselves, but also our universities and all the citizens of this state, many of whom view this form of protest as offensive and disrespectful to the very thing our National Anthem represents.”
Republicans hold a supermajority in the state legislature, and in the Senate only 6 of the 33 senators are Democrats. This often leaves the senate Democrats in the role of resistance, and true to form, not even 24 hours had passed before the Senate Democratic Caucus had responded to the letter with their own statement.
The Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus views student athletes who take the knee as anything but disrespectful. In a joint statement, the Senate Democrats said:
“In fact, student organizing on college campuses is a perfect reflection of the American values embedded in our First Amendment. Rather than silencing the voices of students who are peacefully bringing attention to injustice in our country, we should all be working together to address the inequities that brought them to a knee.”
Sen. Heidi Campbell, in an interview with The Daily Helmsman, said the complaints of her Republican colleagues are little more than politics. “I think it’s political,” Campbell said, “and I think it’s red meat to their base.
“But I think it’s most unfortunate because we have real problems to solve in Tennessee. This is not only a waste of time, but it’s harmful to a lot of Tennesseans. It sends a message to people that their opinions, their struggles, are not valued.”
Over the past year, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and nation-wide outcries to end police brutality against people of color, UofM student athletes have embraced peaceful protests.
During the 2020 football season, the Memphis Tigers each wore helmets that had Black Lives Matter stickers. In June, the football team organized a protest march across campus. Memphis
Head Football Coach Ryan Silverfield made an appearance and gave a speech, before dozens of student athletes marched in solidarity with their black teammates.
The UofM football team was one of the first NCAA teams to feature a Black Lives Matter decal on their uniforms this last season.