“Land of the free, but we can’t take a knee?”
That was the rallying cry of a few hundred students at Kennesaw State University who marched through the campus Monday in support of five cheerleaders who ignited a firestorm when they took a knee during the national anthem at a Sept. 30 football game. The young women said the gesture was intended to draw attention to racism and injustice, in the vein of the National Football League protests that have provoked the anger of President Donald Trump.
Monday’s demonstration was attended by students and faculty who object to the school’s handling of the incident. The cheerleaders have been prevented from taking the field during the anthem since their gesture.
The school says changing when the cheerleaders enter the field was not related to the protest, but the change came after Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren told media that University President Sam Olens had promised him it would not happen again.
The demonstration on campus was meant as a show of force. Organizer David Corinthian, a fifth-year civil engineering student, said the protesters want to meet with Olens, and he urged students to boycott on-campus businesses until the university took them seriously.
Corinthian told the assembled crowd that academic freedom was under threat from the administration, citing the removal of the phrase “social justice pedagogy” from two teaching job descriptions.
“We came to this university to expand our minds, not be held back,” he shouted through a bullhorn to cheers. “We’re not disrespecting the flag. Stop deflecting!”
Demonstrators were unexpectedly joined by the school’s mascot, Scrappy the owl — otherwise known as junior Kenneth Sturkey, who clarified that he had donned the mascot costume without permission.
“I figured it might help some people step outside their comfort zone knowing there’s an icon behind them who supports them in their right to protest,” Sturkey said. “If standing up to injustice and inequality is something that’s going to upset the athletic department, which I can totally understand regarding the suit … and that may cost me my job, then that’s perfectly fine.”
Some accused the school of inconsistency, pointing out that a cheerleader appeared in uniform at Atlanta’s Pride parade Sunday, alongside other students who appeared to arrive in a university bus.
Tom Pynn, a senior lecturer in interdisciplinary studies at KSU, called the school’s response “confused” and “evasive.” He said faculty and staff have been demoralized and embarrassed by Olens’ appointment.
“He just doesn’t appear to me to be acting like a university president — supporting education … supporting faculty, supporting students,” Pynn said. “Instead, he appears to be operating out of an ideological agenda.”
Olens cancelled a scheduled interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. In response to a series of written questions, he wrote, “We are continually having discussions about ways to engage with students and the campus community on critical issues and will continue to do so.”
A spokesperson for Kennesaw State University said contrary to rumors, neither the mascot nor the cheerleaders or football players were in danger of losing their scholarships.
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