Demonstrators lined State of Franklin Road Tuesday afternoon in support of East Tennessee State University’s men’s basketball team, as well as former basketball coach Jason Shay, who resigned amid controversy surrounding the team’s decision to kneel for the national anthem ahead of several games this season.
“It initially started in support of Coach Shay, and how things were handled with him,” Washington County/Johnson City NAACP President Tavia Sillmon said of the demonstration. “Now, we’re supporting the team. Several players have changed where they want to play, and we still want people to come here — this is still a great area in spite of what we’ve shown people. We need to change that.”
The demonstration was held in response to Shay’s sudden resignation last week amid a flurry of controversy due to the team’s decision to kneel for the national anthem to call attention to racial injustice. Many believed Shay was forced out due to his support of his players’ decision to kneel, though the university has maintained it did not fire or force Shay to resign.
Katelyn Yarbrough, chair of the New Generation Freedom Fighters, said they hoped to show everyone that the community supports the players and their right to kneel, calling out businesses that have threatened to pull money from the university, as well as groups that have not supported the players’ protest.
“This is to let them know that we don’t support that,” Yarbrough said. “We support the kneeling Bucs.”
Sillmon, meanwhile, said the situation is a microcosm of what’s going on in the nation.
“I hope they realize that Johnson City is not just about what it used to be hundreds of years ago, that it is diverse, it is inclusive and that we’re asking just to be respected — just to be treated like everyone else, and we want awareness in every area,” Sillmon said of the university’s administration. “I’m hoping the university will see, ‘hey this is still going on, that even though we made that move they’re still doing this and maybe there are some things that we need to look at and change as well.’ “
Sillmon also said she hopes to see newly hired Desmond Oliver, ETSU’s first African American head basketball coach, support the players if they decide to kneel again next season.
“I’m very supportive of Coach Oliver. First of all, congratulations on getting the position that he probably wouldn’t have gotten in other circumstances,” Sillmon said. “I’m hoping he can do what he was sent here to do and bring change and awareness and teach young men, but we all know why it was done and we’re expecting him to do the right thing as well — we’re expecting him to support the players. He’s going to have to, as well as the university, if we want to grow.”
Yarbrough said the hiring of an African American coach doesn’t erase their concerns.
“We weren’t asking for a Black coach,” Yarbrough said. “We want the systemic racism to stop and the corruption with the money — just because you want to donate funds and sponsor the college and the athletics department doesn’t mean that you get to impress your beliefs on everyone and silence and stomp on someone else’s rights.”