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As debate around the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team’s decision to kneel for the national anthem continues, university President Brian Noland said during a board of trustees meeting Friday that he hopes the conversation around it creates an “opportunity.”

“It’s my sincere hope that the image of our students expressing their beliefs on the field of play gives us an opportunity to come together to heal, have dialogue and to replace strife with unity,” Noland said.

Noland said he does not believe the team intended to disrespect the flag or the military, but that he recognizes that people have been hurt by the team’s decision — with personal friends and business associates ending relationships with him and the university over it.

Noland also said that while the kneeling reminds him of the “important need for people to express themselves in their own ways ... we all have to recognize that we’re representatives of this university.

“When they put on the blue and gold of their uniforms, they not only represent their teammates, they carry the hopes and dreams and aspirations of this region,” Noland said.

“When you put on a uniform, you take on a unique responsibility, and I know that the actions of the past few days have caused tension and strife and emotion within our community. I also know that we’ve had a lot of purposeful and intentional conversations regarding social justice and equity and structural disparities in our region.

“Those conversations are healthy and healing and I know that they’re going to plant seeds that will allow roots to grow for change,” he added.

After a game Wednesday night, Coach Jason Shay said kneeling was meant to spark discussion about racial inequality and racial injustice in the country.

“Our intentions by no means involve disrespecting our country’s flag or the servicemen and women that put their lives on the line for our nation,” Shay said. “You know we hold those heroes near and dear to our hearts, including two generals that have served our country right here in our backyard.

“No one knows the sacrifice, the fear, the pain, the anxiety, the loss that they’ve experienced fighting for our country’s freedom and rights. But many of us don’t know the same sacrifice, fear, pain and loss the people of color have had to endure over 400 years,” he continued. “My team is a daily reminder to me that some things are just bigger than basketball.”

Shay’s comments, however, did little to quell the social media firestorm that followed, with state Rep. Scotty Campbell, R-Mountain City, and U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger, R-1st, expressing displeasure at the team’s decision on Twitter.

“I’m disappointed to see the ETSU basketball team take a knee during the national anthem,” wrote Harshbarger. “This is disrespectful to everyone who fought or died to protect our freedoms. We should stand proud with our hands on our hearts or saluting the flag during the anthem.”

Trustee Kelly Wolfe also took issue with the team’s decision to kneel, questioning how the university can get community buy-in for its programs such as the Committee for 125 “considering the firestorm that’s going on in this community right now over the kneeling for the national anthem.” Wolfe also asked Noland how people who disagree with the kneeling should approach it and “still be loyal to their school.”

“There’s a team, and when you’re a member of that team I think you have a higher obligation to this university than just saying and doing anything that you want,” Wolfe said later. “I know that we as trustees have a similar obligation that, as trustees, we have to set aside some things of our preference and act as representatives of the university, and I think that has been lost in this discussion by and large.”

In his response, Noland said “who we are as a campus today is no different than who we were as a campus last Friday,” adding that he hopes people will realize the university hasn’t changed once emotions settle.

On a conference call with media following the meeting, Noland said he’s spoken with Shay and said “we are going to continue to work through this as a community.”

Asked if he expects the team will continue to kneel for the anthem, Noland noted that the team’s next scheduled game is against the Virginia Military Institute and said, “I do not anticipate that we will take any actions during that game that would reflect negatively upon our opponents.”

“We deeply respect the sacrifices that the student-athletes at VMI are making, and that they will make upon graduation,” Noland said. “So, I do not anticipate, and I’m extremely confident, that we will take no action as an institution that would reflect negatively on that university, and I think we will celebrate the service of the men and women and that university and the service of men and women who serve our country.”

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