KSU didn’t follow guidance on cheerleader kneeling

Kennesaw State University president Sam Olens did not follow state guidance when the university made a change that kept cheerleaders from kneeling on the football field during the national anthem, a report released Tuesday concluded.

University System of Georgia officials told Olens and the presidents of its public universities during a two-day October meeting that taking a knee during the anthem is free speech protected by the U.S. Constitution and should not be interfered with, unless it causes a disruption. Any changes by a college should be discussed with the USG.

The Saturday after that meeting, KSU implemented a change that kept its cheerleaders in its stadium tunnel before the anthem. That was a week after five cheerleaders had first taken a knee on the field. Olens did not discuss the change with USG officials, who learned about it through an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article.

“President Olens was aware of the proposed change three days before it was implemented and did nothing to stop the change,” the report said. “President Olens also did not advise the University System Office of the proposed change, though he was instructed to do so earlier that week.”

The report also questions KSU’s explanation that the change to the program before football games was unrelated to the kneel-down, citing the timing of the change.

Some organizations have argued KSU’s change violated the students’ free-speech rights. The report does not say if the University System believes KSU committed such a violation.

The five-page review is a rare rebuke of Olens, who’s been one of the state’s most influential leaders for the past two decades. Olens is the former Georgia attorney general, Cobb County government and Atlanta Regional Commission chairman. He was named KSU’s president in November 2016. KSU has about 35,000 students, the USG’s third-largest enrollment.

A KSU spokeswoman referred questions about the review to the USG. A USG spokesman said it has discussed the report with Olens, but declined further comment. The report does not mention nor suggest any disciplinary actions against Olens or any KSU officials.

Davante Lewis, a spokesman for the cheerleaders who’ve knelt, said the report does confirm KSU’s change was in retaliation for them exercising their constitutional rights. Lewis did say the report does not answer some questions, such as who initiated the change.

“President Olens has a professional and personal obligation to publicly answer these questions,” said Lewis, a brother of one of the cheerleaders.

The Georgia Board of Regents ordered a special review into how KSU responded to the kneeling after the AJC published text messages by state Rep. Earl Ehrhart and Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren suggesting they successfully pressured Olens into keeping the cheerleaders off the field.

Ehrhart and Warren called Olens and other KSU athletics officials several times, saying the cheerleaders should not be on the field during the anthem. Olens and other KSU administrators, who were interviewed by USG officials, insisted they did not make the changes in response to those calls. Warren declined comment. Ehrhart did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Olens, the review said, learned about the change the day after the USG meeting from an athletics department official, who said it was being done “to improve fan experience.” Olens said they could go ahead with the change, although he didn’t understand its significance, believing KSU would now be in line with other USG campuses, the report said. However, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia allow cheerleaders on the field during the anthem. One KSU official, Mike DeGeorge, twice raised concerns about the timing of the change, according to the report.

USG officials and Board of Regents members sent numerous emails about the change, emails received Tuesday by the AJC through an open-records request show. Some board members wanted clarity about KSU’s actions. Board member Dean Alford was dismayed.

“Free speech does not allow you to wear the uniform of our institutions and then be disrespectful,” Alford wrote.

Many longtime KSU supporters have made similar complaints, describing the cheerleaders’ actions as unpatriotic.

Olens announced earlier this month that cheerleaders can be on the field during the anthem. Several cheerleaders knelt during Saturday's game.