Cheerleaders who touched off anthem uproar at Kennesaw State regain chance to protest

Eric Adelson
Five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem prior to a game on Sept. 30. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

The “Kennesaw Five” – cheerleaders who were banished from the football field at Kennesaw State during the playing of the national anthem  after kneeling during the song in late September – will be back in front of fans starting Saturday.

School president Sam Olens addressed the simmering controversy this week when he put out a letter to the community that said in part, “While I believe there are more effective ways to initiate an exchange of ideas on issues of national concern, the right to exercise one’s Freedom of Speech under the First Amendment must be protected.”

Yet leading up to Saturday’s home game, there are still plenty of raw nerves, and an unsettled debate about Scrappy the Owl, the school’s mascot.

Olens initially said the decision to remove the cheerleaders was planned before the protest, but local news reports found text messages from state representative Earl Ehrhart and Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren that suggested intense pressure on Olens to make the change.

The involvement of a highly placed lawmaker and a highly placed law enforcement official turned this into a national story. And it produced more anger on campus. Senior Jeffrey Wallace, who is known as hip-hop artist Jaye Newton, stood up at a concert in front of Olens’ office in mid-October and rapped, “Tell me how I can go to a college so diverse/Yet they take my First Amendment and throw it in a hearse.” He was greeted with roars of approval.

As for the reasons behind the protest, cheerleader Shlondra Young told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “We kneel for equality. We kneel to highlight social injustice and to highlight police brutality and kneel in honor for those who unjustly lost their lives and for those who could not kneel for themselves. We kneel in a city where a Confederate culture still exists amongst some and issues like this are placed on the back burner.”

Protesters raise their arms in support of Kennesaw State cheerleaders in October. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Newton told Yahoo Sports he felt 40 to 45 percent of the campus agreed with the protest, including some faculty. “Professors at our school do not like our president right now,” he said.

There was even a wave of drama when a student in the school mascot uniform kneeled during a rally. “As a student, sure,” Ehrhart told the Marietta Daily Journal. “But with respect to utilizing the school’s mascot, that’s inappropriate.”

An email to the office of Rep. Ehrhart was not immediately returned, and a representative from Olens’ office declined comment.

Will the cheerleaders kneel again, on Veterans Day weekend? One cheerleader told the Marietta Daily Journal that the group would take a knee. Newton isn’t so sure.

“Cheerleaders might be fearful,” he said. “I don’t feel there will be another protest. A lot of people are going [to the game] to see what’s going to happen, but I feel like they’re scared to take the knee again because of repercussions.”

Newton said the mandate of the protesters is: stay peaceful.

“We stress non-violent protest,” he said. “We have really been adamant. They [opponents of the protests] have their First Amendment right just like we have ours. It’s not right to say our viewpoint is the only viewpoint. We will continue to push peaceful protest.”

There might be more attention paid to the cheerleaders than the players on this football Saturday. And that goes for the cheerleaders as well as the mascot, although there might be some real unity there.

“Everybody still loves Scrappy,” Newton said. “People didn’t agree when he took a knee, but at the end of the day, no one is saying ‘Boycott Scrappy.’ ”

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