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Tennessee senator compares ETSU players' kneeling during anthem to a middle finger raised toward the flag

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A Tennessee state senator says athletes kneeling during the national anthem before a game is like raising a middle finger to the United States flag.

State Sen. Jon Lundberg of Bristol made the comparison Wednesday during a budget hearing for East Tennessee State. His comments to ETSU president Brian Nolan came in the wake of the ETSU men's basketball team's decision to kneel during the anthem ahead of its Feb. 15 game against Chattanooga.

The team has been kneeling ahead of games at various points during the 2020-21 season. On Feb. 17, coach Jason Shay was asked after a loss to Mercer about the practice and defended his players.

“No one knows the sacrifice, the fear, the pain, the anxiety, the loss that they’ve experienced fighting for our country’s freedom and rights,” Shay said via WJHL 11 about members of the United States military branches. “But many of us don’t know the same sacrifice, fear, pain, and loss that people of color have had to endure over 400 years.”

That was not an answer that placated those who were upset with what the basketball team did. Like it has ever since Colin Kaepernick began the practice to protest racial injustice in 2016, the players' decision to protest during the anthem upset politicians.

GOP senators speak out against college athlete protests

On Feb. 23, every Republican in the Tennessee Senate signed a letter asking for punishments for any player who protested during a school sporting event.

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Rusty Crowe, the state senator for Johnson City, where ETSU is located, said that players should protest at a different time.

From WPLN:

“Most of us are thinking that when you are in that uniform and you are acting as an ambassador for the university and the state, there possibly is a line there that differentiates that freedom of speech,” Crowe said.

East Tennessee State is a public university. It's unclear where Crowe believes that line would be without violating the players' First Amendment rights. They are not employees of the school.

A day after the senators signed the letter, there was a campus march in solidarity with the players' decision to kneel.

SPARTANBURG, SC - FEBRUARY 01: Damari Monsanto (12) forward of ETSU during a college basketball game between the East Tennessee State Buccaneers and the Wofford Terriers on February 1, 2021, at Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium in Spartanburg, S.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The East Tennessee State men's basketball team has taken a knee during the national anthem before games in the 2020-21 season. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

'Putting that knee down gave the bird to our flag'

The issue continued to simmer Wednesday during the school's annual budget hearing. State Sen. Jon Lundberg, a Republican from Bristol, compared kneeling during the anthem to raising a middle finger to the flag.

“Frankly, sir, in my mind, putting that knee down gave the bird to our flag, sir. And I don’t see that difference. Tell me what that difference is,” Lundberg said to Nolan during the hearing via WPLN.

Nolan responded with similar sentiments expressed by Shay weeks earlier.

“I deeply regret the feelings of pain and animosity that have emerged throughout the region,” said Nolan. “As our players said in their own words on Saturday, they did not intend to disrespect those who have served or the flag.”

The Tennessee state legislature controls the funding appropriations for public universities in the state. A constitutional law professor cited by WJHL in February noted how the letter could lead to potential constitutional violations.

What would president have done differently?

As Lundberg pressed Nolan on the players' demonstration, the ETSU president outlined what he would have done differently in an attempt to prematurely defuse tensions surrounding the players' peaceful protest.

Kaepernick first started kneeling after former Army Green Beret and NFL player Nate Boyer talked with Kaepernick about Kaepernick's reasons for protesting during the anthem. Boyer was the one who suggested Kaepernick kneel because it was more respectful than sitting.

Wednesday, Nolan said that he would have wanted to create a conversation between his athletes and various members of the community about the issues they were taking a stand against.

“I would have ensured that we would have spoken with the students in detail, provided the opportunity for our students to meet with veterans, provided the opportunity for our students to dialogue and have conversations about issues that were on their minds,” he said. “And I’m committed to having those conversations moving forward.”

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