Sports

How a Tennessee town is reckoning with race after team’s peaceful protest

ON A FRIGID February night in Chattanooga, about 20 East Tennessee State basketball players, coaches and staff made the same peaceful, if provocative, statement many others had since 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick forged the silent act of resistance in 2016. In front of a reported 1,000 fans and many more COVID-era fan cutouts, they took a knee during the national anthem.

Such demonstrations — notably Kaepernick’s — had stirred controversy before, but blowback from the Buccaneers’ simple act of defiance illuminated something different and, in some ways, more personal: a small community’s fracturing as it grappled with its racist past and unequal present.

The reaction, in a place uncomfortable with the style of the new civil rights movement and its focus on structural inequities and in-your-face social action, upended a proud basketball program. First-year coach Jason Shay, who is white, ended up resigning, and more than half his team followed by entering the transfer portal. Overwhelmingly white locals who cheered the Bucs’ many victories through the years turned on the mostly Black team.

“You can’t heal and you can’t correct something unless you name the elephant. You got to name it first. And what’s happening, I think, is certain elements are trying not to name it,” the Rev. Edward Wolff, a retired pastor and founder of the Black/White Dialogue, a Johnson City, Tennessee, group that promotes interracial collaboration, told ESPN. “It’s two words: systemic racism. Until we acknowledge it and embrace it and talk about it, we can’t heal it.”

As the country marks a year since the police murder of George Floyd triggered a national reckoning on race, the ETSU tempest, as reflected in interviews with local officials and nearly 500 pieces of correspondence released by the school in response to records requests from ESPN and other news outlets, raises sobering questions about whether the players’ protest will bring lasting change or deeper division in Johnson City.

The town of 63,000 on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest was prompted to think “more about issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion in the past weeks than it has in a generation,” university president Brian Noland noted in email responses to several alumni, trustees and others who wrote the university regarding the protest.

“I have been struck by the polarizing nature of these discussions. Unfortunately, this issue mirrors many aspects in our society in which individuals are entrenched in their positions, unable to find common ground.”

ACCORDING TO EMAIL reviewed by ESPN, messages began pouring into ETSU officials shortly after local news outlets ran images of the players and coaches locking arms and kneeling before a Feb. 15 game against in-state rival Chattanooga.

A relative handful of local residents who wrote to the university were supportive of the players. “As you are aware, this is in no way disrespectful to the flag, veterans, nor the United States of America,” Tavia Sillmon, president of the Johnson City-Washington County NAACP wrote to university trustees. The university’s faculty senate passed a resolution recommending that ETSU “support students as they serve as advocates for social justice in our local and national communities.” And Helen Zakewicz, an ETSU nursing instructor, said she was inspired by the team’s idealism. “I applaud their willingness to use their visibility on the team to publicly take a stand for justice, equity, and inclusiveness,” she wrote.

But the large majority of correspondence condemned the team’s on-court protest, often in terms that were harsh and sometimes vile.

“Left wing liberal thought and policy will destroy our schools and collegiate athletics from within,” John D. “Spike” Tickle wrote in an email to Noland. Attached to his missive was an article entitled “Don’t Give Money to Your Alma Mater.”

Doug Howard, a 1978 ETSU alum whose father fought in World War II, called for the team and coaches to be punished. “All athletes at ETSU should know that any such acts in the future will result in being removed from the team and scholarship forfeited,” he wrote. “Coaches will be suspended pending dismissal!” One anonymous writer left a blatantly racist message. It read: “Can your black athletes even write, do they even know why they are disrespecting this country.”

In many ways, the fallout from the ETSU protest was not unlike that faced by Kaepernick, whose NFL career was derailed after his protest, or others who took a knee in the name of racial justice. In February, the entire men’s basketball team at Bluefield College, an NAIA school in Virginia, was suspended and forced to forfeit a game after kneeling during the national anthem on multiple occasions. The following month, an Oklahoma sports broadcaster hurled racial slurs and expletives at members of a girls’ high school basketball team who took a knee during the national anthem before a quarterfinal game in the state tournament.

At ETSU, key boosters and other financial backers were upset at what they saw as the protest’s disrespect to the flag and the many veterans who served in the military to defend it, and some withdrew support. The owner of Johnson City Honda, who also sits on a fundraising board for the university, reclaimed the loaner cars that he had made available to Shay and his assistant coaches. After getting wind of that, Honda’s corporate office tweeted: “These actions are contrary to our beliefs. We shared this with appropriate parties for further action.”

Meanwhile, school email shows Noland struggling to keep other donors on board.

“I spent my morning with two significant business leaders who were pulling their support for the University,” he wrote to ETSU trustee Steven DeCarlo, a Charlotte-based insurance executive, in the days following the protest. “After those meetings, one has decided to stay and the other told me that they will sleep on it and let me know in the morning of their decision.”

At the same time, Noland and other university administrators came under intense political pressure. Diana Harshbarger, a Republican congresswoman from the area, tweeted that the protest was “disrespectful.” Also, 27 Republican members of the Tennessee state Senate signed a letter calling on Noland and other state university presidents to ban athlete protests during the national anthem.

“We expect all those who walk onto the field of play representing our universities to also walk onto the field of play to show respect for our National Anthem,” the letter warned. “To address this issue, we encourage each of you to adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward.”

Members of the team also felt the heat. One day when several players were leaving practice at the civic center, they walked past a car with its door open. When the driver spotted them, he started yelling.

“Dude was like, ‘You guys are a disgrace. I hope the program tanks.’ He was just running his mouth to us,” Jordan Coffin, a senior guard last season, said in an interview. “We didn’t react to him. But it was wild.'”

The team was also pummeled on social media, Coffin recalled. “We started trending on Twitter. And some fans stopped showing up to games. That was the message right there,” he said. Shay, who promised to have his players’ backs when they said before the season that they planned to kneel, defended them against the onslaught.

Speaking to reporters, he acknowledged that only veterans truly understand “the fear, the pain, the anxiety, the loss that they’ve experienced fighting for our country’s freedom and rights.” Then he added: “Many of us don’t know the same sacrifice, fear, pain and loss the people of color have had to endure over 400 years. My team is a daily reminder to me that some things are just bigger than basketball.”

The team was at first buoyed by the public show of support. One player, whose name was redacted in documents released by the university, texted Shay: “Appreciate it coach not [too] many men would put their life, coaching career, and [family’s] life on the line for colored people. Thank you for being that one man to stand up for us because other[s] wouldn’t do it at all. You’re a man of God, have true character, and living for the right purpose in life!”

But within weeks, the pressure had become too much. Shay’s agent negotiated a $450,000 severance package, and the coach resigned at the end of March, walking out on the final two years of his $300,000-a-year contract. Nine players have also moved on. “Coach Shay has been battling adversity all year long,” Sadaidriene Hall, a freshman forward who left ETSU for Stephen F. Austin University, told the political blog Tri-Cities Holler after Shay’s resignation. “He stood up for his players. Coach Shay lost his job for protecting the Black community.”

ETSU HAS A difficult racial history, not unlike Johnson City or, for that matter, America itself. Founded in 1911, the university was racially segregated until it enrolled its first Black student in 1957. Six years later, Tommy Woods, the first Black player on the men’s basketball team, arrived on campus.

At first, fans heckled and taunted Woods during home games. “Every time I’d make two points or get a rebound, the student section would just boo me. They’d yell, ‘Where’s your tail?’ Go back to Africa,’ Woods told ESPN in an interview.

At one point, he thought about leaving school, but his father urged him to hang in there, telling Woods that if he remained true to himself, things would improve. That turned out to be right.

“My senior year, in one of my last games, I got 38 rebounds and 29 points, something like that. And at the end, I think I fouled out, and they gave me a standing ovation,” he said. “I just happened to look down at the student section. And some of the same people that booed me all that time, they were on their feet clapping.”

During his career, Woods set several ETSU rebounding records that still stand more than a half-century later. The university named the men’s locker room in his honor in 2016, and by the time Woods was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame earlier this year, he was widely described as a beloved figure.

If Woods came to be admired at ETSU, so too did basketball. The team is a big draw, playing its games at the city’s 6,000-seat Freedom Hall civic center and dominating local sports talk during the season.

It helped that ETSU has developed into a perennial winner. Since 2001, the team has had just one losing season, while posting 11 with at least 20 victories, including a 30-win campaign in 2019-2020. “Basketball is a big deal around here,” Wolff said.

Members of the team stand out at the university, not only because they are campus celebrities of sorts but also because just 7% of the 14,000 students are Black. At times, the players and other Black students at ETSU have been forced to endure stunning racial slights.

In 2016, a white student showed up at a Black Lives Matter rally on campus as a counterprotester wearing a gorilla mask and overalls, and carrying a burlap sack stamped with the Confederate flag. The student then offered bananas to the protesters. The student was eventually convicted of disrupting a meeting, but he was acquitted of civil rights intimidation and disorderly conduct charges.

Three years later, a memorial dedicated to the university’s first African American students and other parts of the campus were papered with flyers saying “It’s okay to be white,” a seemingly innocuous phrase that the Anti-Defamation League says has been co-opted by white supremacists.

Noland and other university officials immediately denounced those incidents. But for many people in Johnson City, they were seen as part of a troubling pattern.

“I strongly believe that some people are not ready to have conversations about cultural and racial divides because of the pain and frustrations associated with having such conversations,” Keith Johnson, ETSU’s vice president for equity and inclusion, told ESPN in an email.

A January proposal for the city to form a racial equity advisory board to help guide local government toward being more inclusive has been embroiled in controversy since it was raised at a city commission meeting. Some saw the idea as divisive, and it has yet to move forward.

“When you start talking about a group with labels like equity and inclusion, there’s sort of code language there that heterosexual white males need not apply,” Johnson City Mayor Joe Wise said at the meeting. Rather than form an advisory board that could pressure or embarrass the city commission, he said more minorities should be given “real authority” on existing boards and commissions to address the city’s diversity issues.

Civil rights advocates said the mayor’s reaction was typical in a region that prefers to handle racial issues quietly and within existing structures. So it was little wonder that the basketball team’s protest provoked such a strong reaction.

“It did highlight the polarization that is not only here but all over the country,” Stephanie McClellan, editor of the Johnson City Press, said in an interview. “I think a lot of people recognize there’s racism, but they may not recognize it as being systemic. If they haven’t known people who face that, it is hard for them to understand.”

Aaron T. Murphy, a local minister and the only Black member of the city commission, said much of the discord caused by the ETSU protest was more about its form than its substance. Emphasizing that he was speaking for himself and not the commission, he said that he sees the disagreement over the player protest in Johnson City — where just 7% of residents are Black — as more of a “cultural and generational” struggle than a racial one.

“When you have protests here in our city you only have a speck of people of color,” he said, adding: “When you have basketball players who come from different areas, if it’s Chicago or Memphis or Atlanta, they are coming from a different culture. When people want to be heard in their areas, they take knees. In our area, people are not as receptive of that.” The protest, he concluded, was just “too much for this area.”

THREE MONTHS AFTER the protest, many people around Johnson City are left to wonder whether the team’s action simply revealed an ugly truth about the difficulty of addressing racial issues, or whether it will prove to be a catalyst for progress. So far, there seems to be evidence of both.

Since Shay’s resignation, protesters who backed the kneeling players have descended on Johnson City Honda, the dealership that reclaimed the coaches’ loaned cars. “Justice for Coach Shay!” they chanted.

The dealership’s owner, Joseph Trujillo, did not respond to interview requests from ESPN. A biography posted on the ETSU website says Trujillo had a brother who was killed in the Vietnam War at age 19, and that his father served 30 years in the military and saw action in both the Vietnam and Korean wars.

In an interview with local television station WCYB days after the player protest came to light, Trujillo said he doesn’t agree with players kneeling during the anthem, although he readily acknowledged that racial injustice is a reality. “If they want to take a knee before or after, I’m the first one there,” he said.

At the university, Noland said officials have led more than 40 listening sessions and focus groups with students and community leaders on the subject of race. He also has appointed a task force that will examine ways ETSU can better support diversity and social justice.

“We know that solutions to these challenges won’t come from the top down and that we must do everything we can to engage the entire community as we move forward,” Noland told ESPN in an email.

Within a week of Shay’s resignation, ETSU hired former University of Tennessee assistant Desmond Oliver, who became the school’s first Black men’s head basketball coach. He said he has not spent much time looking back at what happened when the team decided to kneel.

“The reality is, we have moved on,” Oliver told ESPN this week. “We’re over that.”

So far, he has managed to persuade at least two players who had planned to transfer — leading scorer Ledarrius Brewer and his brother Ty Brewer — to stay.

Oliver said he met with the team both as a group and one-on-one because he wanted those guys “to hear my story.” Oliver was born poor to a single mother. But good grades in school and hard work on the basketball court allowed him to attend college and graduate school, and eventually land a string of coveted coaching jobs.

“I actually cried somewhat when talking to the group because I was so taken back by the opportunity to affect young people’s lives,” Oliver said. “I realized that was my moment. I told them, ‘No coach in America is going to care about [you] more off the basketball court than me.'”

Several players who were seniors last season are now planning to use the extra year of eligibility granted them by the NCAA because of the pandemic to stay at ETSU. Oliver also has landed several recruits as well as transfers from Wichita State and Siena, and he says he has his squad in place for next season.

“It was amazing, the outpouring I got from my guys, the connection I had made with several of them,” Oliver said. “All the kids found some similarity in my story that stood out to them.” During his early weeks on the job, he also has met with boosters and asked them to help the ETSU program, not by donating money — not yet — but by providing mentoring opportunities for his players.

Still, Oliver faces a big task in maintaining ETSU’s winning tradition and, maybe most of all, managing whatever protests his team might want to stage in the future. When asked what he would do if his players decided to kneel during the national anthem next season, he answered only indirectly.

“If our communication is at a high level, when there’s a bad day, the way you interpret that bad day will be different than when you don’t communicate things the right way,” Oliver said. He added: “We’re thankful for the support that we get. And certainly when things happen in our community that need to be addressed and talked about, they will talk about those things.”

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