Home » Perspective » Taking a knee: Lecturing student-athletes about patriotism

By Keel Hunt, published on March 7, 2021

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In this Jan. 9, 2021, file photo, Washington State players kneel during the national anthem in front of standing Stanford players before an NCAA college basketball game in Santa Cruz, Calif. Student-athletes across college campuses are taking a lead from professional athletes by using their platforms in hopes of creating change. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

It’s now been one week since 27 deep thinkers in the Tennessee Senate signed that silly Republican letter to our state university presidents – hoping they will lecture their student-athletes a little better about patriotism.

You can read the letter, and all about that pre-game episode at East Tennessee State University which provoked it, here.  But, as you read, do keep in mind our current political context.

These days Republicans prefer taking the gang-up approach. They figure their fussy group-speak will have the gloss of authority, and thus exert the desired chilling effect upon college administrators whose budgets they can control.

Underneath their high-flying words, of course, lies much grievance toward any independent thinking. This from what we used to call the “Republican Party.”

No, this dispute isn’t about our national anthem. Nor is it about the flag nor any disrespect for the military, as some blowhard politicians insist. It’s about free speech, peaceful expression of a point of view, and how some dimwits have forgotten what that’s all about. Yet 27 legislators up in Nashville, seizing on what their campaign consultants tell them is a useful “wedge issue,” want to make this flap about patriotism and which version of it they want our young adults to practice.

They also have short memories, to go with their shaky grasp of the First Amendment.

Just three years ago the Tennessee General Assembly passed the “Campus Free Speech Protection Act.” It was sponsored by the chair of the Senate Education Committee (she is now retired) and signed into law by the former governor Bill Haslam. It properly encouraged more – not fewer – civil demonstrations of expression by students and faculty.

“This is completely baffling,” Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at MTSU, told me this morning. “It was just three years ago that the state legislature made a robust commitment to free speech on Tennessee campuses. It included specific references to demonstrations and protests – a truly helpful defense of free expression on public campuses throughout Tennessee. Now they’ve written a letter urging campuses to disobey that law. 

“In 1989,” he continued, “the Supreme Court ruled that citizens have a right to protest by burning a flag. Certainly students have a right to protest by kneeling quietly. Limiting their rights would unquestionably be unconstitutional. It is not a close call.”

Come to think of it: It’s also been a full week that we have NOT heard any organized response to this nonsense from Tennessee’s higher education leaders. You’d think by now at least a couple of them would have smacked this grandstanding stunt back up to Capitol Hill. So far, only silence from academia, the refuge of freedom.

I hope we will hear from one or more of the campus presidents in the week to come. This is important. They must not remain silent in the face of pompous partisan posturing, lest their students get the idea they’ve done something wrong.

This is definitely a learning moment for everybody – and, in particular, for state government leaders who could use refreshing on what it means to be an American. “Learning moments” are called that for a reason. They’re a chance to shine the light of broader understanding, so that positive lessons are drawn from unfortunate stumbles.

Tennessee’s legislators, who find themselves in plenty enough stumbles of their own making nowadays, should stick to their own knitting and try harder to get that right. And we will thank you to leave our student-athletes alone.

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