Opinion: East Tennessee State coach, players deserve praise, not scorn, for protesting during anthem

In case you didn't know, one of the bravest group of people during the entire social justice movement in sports wasn't just a quarterback in San Francisco, or an NBA player, or an Olympian, it was a group of college players in a town of 66,000 in the state of Tennessee.

The story of East Tennessee State University, located in Johnson City, isn't as publicized as the fights against systemic racism from mega-names like LeBron James or Colin Kaepernick, but it's just as vital. What's happening there is both inspirational and beautiful, but their story is also about the ugliness of racism, bullying and abuse of power by legislators.

In many ways it's the typical 21st century American story.

The ETSU men's basketball team started protesting during the national anthem at the start of the season. The players were supported by their coach, Jason Shay, who resigned this week.

In a statement, Shay didn't specifically say why he was resigning, but his players said in interviews with ESPN they believed it was because Shay supported them.

"I personally feel like him resigning is crazy," Truth Harris, a freshman point guard, told ESPN in a telephone interview. "It shows a lot of what is going on in this town, and in this country right now."

In a remarkable, and disgraceful, act of intimidation against a bunch of college kids, earlier this season all 27 Republican Caucus members of the Tennessee Senate called on university presidents throughout the state system to prohibit protests on the court.

Interestingly, when several of the legislators were confronted by the Tennessee Holler their responses were, um, less than illuminating. 

East Tennessee State Buccaneers head coach Jason Shay resigned this week. (Photo: Marvin Gentry, USA TODAY Sports)

I've been to Johnson City several times. To say that area is extremely conservative is like saying Usain Bolt runs fast. It's a dramatic understatement. This is not to say that everyone there should be put under one conservative brush, but statistically, overall, that part of Tennessee is right wing, and the right wing, overall (though not everyone) has despised the social justice movement in sports.

This is all to say that the ETSU players aren't just courageous. They are perhaps needed more than ever.

What we are seeing now, from one corner of the nation to the other, from sea to shining sea, is the slow destruction of basic human decency and the rapid erosion of democracy.

Republicans across the country, particularly in Georgia, are stealing votes from Black and brown people. That's not an opinion. That's a fact.

Rhetoric from the former President, who used racist language to describe the pandemic, led to an increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Their basic humanity, like so many times in American history, is being attacked.

The trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of murder, illustrates how even some people who are supposed to protect and serve can be monstrous. A paramedic testified on April 1 that he felt George Floyd's neck for pulse and couldn't find one. He did so while police officers were still on top of Floyd. That means Chauvin was potentially restraining Floyd even after he was dead.

This is why what the Atlanta Dream, Kaepernick, ETSU and others did was, and remains, so important. They keep bringing attention to the plight of people of color and the flaws and biases of the criminal justice system. They do so at the risk of losing their jobs and in the face of death threats.

All of the protestors, including the ETSU players, and maybe particularly them, are heroes.

They remind us all of not just the work that needs to be done, but that we all need to pay close attention to the atrocities and affronts being committed now.

There's a straight line from the deaths of Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to the rise in hate against the AAPI community, to the attacks on voting rights. It's one of the scariest times in America in decades.

We don't need to condemn or ignore ETSU.

We need to thank them.

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