The Kennesaw State cheerleaders at the center of a national controversy over kneeling during the national anthem chose not to take a knee on Saturday despite being allowed back on the field.
On Oct. 8, President Sam Olens rescinded the game day schedule change that kept the cheerleaders inside the tunnel during the “Star Spangled Banner,” a change made one week after five cheerleaders took a knee during the anthem to protest police brutality against minorities.
Olens has maintained that the change was unrelated to the cheerleaders’ demonstration.
An open records request made by reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, however, revealed a series of text messages involving Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren and State Rep. Earl Ehrhart that seemed to suggest the two pressured Olens into removing the cheerleaders from the field.
Olens has denied their influence but said he regrets how he handled the situation.
“While I believe there are more effective ways to initiate an exchange of ideas on issues of national concern, the right to exercise one’s freedom of speech under the First Amendment must be protected,” Olens wrote in an email to the campus community.
At Saturday’s football game against Charleston Southern, a military appreciation game, eight of the cheerleaders stood with their arms linked together in what they said was an acknowledgment of Veterans Day.
“Although we know our protest has nothing to do with the flag or respect of our veterans, many equate us kneeling with being disrespectful to them, so in heed of that, we won’t be protesting this weekend to make sure it doesn’t take away from the recognition of Veterans and bring more negative attention to our protest,” the cheerleaders wrote in a joint statement on Sunday.
“This doesn’t mean we think it is disrespectful when we are kneeling, it just simply means that although we don’t agree, we are tolerable of other’s opinions,” the statement continued.
The decision to reinstitute the original gameday schedule comes after weeks of both on and off-campus protests in support of the cheerleaders, as well as contentious criticism of them. Davante Lewis, the brother of one of the cheerleaders who kneeled, said he’s skeptical of the decision.
“This reversal is an admission that Kennesaw State was violating their right to free speech,” Lewis said. “President Olens has always contended that the Athletics Department made this change. If he is changing the policy now, why did he approve it in the first place? The timing seems very political and leaves more questions to be answered.”
The cheerleaders have been kneeling inside the tunnel for the past several games and said they plan to continue to kneel at next week’s game against Monmouth University.