In all the debate around athletes taking a knee, no one was as eloquent as 97-year-old World War II veteran John Middlemas.
In a photo went viral, the Missouri farmer took a supportive knee because “those kids have every right to protest.”
He’s right. Now, if only Kennesaw State University President Sam Olens would take such a spirited and public stand on behalf of freedom of speech and his students.
Olens hasn’t talked about the five Kennesaw State cheerleaders who knelt on the football field during the national anthem at the Sept. 30 game.
Following the example of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other pro players, the KSU students took a knee to combat injustice and police abuse. They didn’t resort to torches and Nazi salutes. They didn’t shout down opponents or prevent classmates from learning.
They protested with dignity and respect, not turning their backs on the flag or America but, as Jeremy Adam Smith and Dacher Keltner wrote in Scientific American, transforming ” a collective ritual—the playing of the national anthem—into something somber, a reminder of how far we still have to go to realize the high ideal of equal protection under the law that the flag represents. ”
The criticisms that such displays are disrespectful to the military have been countered by an outpouring of support from veterans. In a social media campaign, veterans have shared, “I’ll take a kneel against injustice and oppression before I stand with those who turn a blind eye to it,” and “We don’t join to serve/honor a flag or song. We join for the people and the expectations of what America could/can be.”
No, not everyone agrees with the KSU cheerleaders, including the Cobb County sheriff and some legislators, and those opponents have a right to object. As president of KSU and the former Georgia attorney general, Olens is the ideal leader to explain and defend the first amendment rights of the student protesters and their critics.
As David French, an attorney and veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, wrote in the National Review:
When the history of this unfortunate, polarized era of American life is written, whether a man stood or knelt will matter far less than the values we all lived by. Americans who actually defend the letter and spirit of the First Amendment will stand (or kneel) proudly in the history books. Those who seek to punish their political opponents’ speech, on the other hand, can stand or kneel as they wish — so long as they hang their heads in shame.
KSU now is keeping the cheerleaders off the field during the anthem, a change the school says was already planned and designed to give the 45 cheerleaders and band a better introduction when entering the field. The cheerleaders are rightfully skeptical of that explanation.
KSU issued a statement: “Kennesaw State University believes that it is important to honor the national anthem. It is equally as important to respect the rights of individuals as protected under the first amendment.”
In an AJC story on the young women, higher education reporter Eric Stirgus wrote:
The five cheerleaders, all African-American, said they had been concerned about the issues raised by the NFL players and discussed kneeling during the anthem, as a Georgia Tech dancer did during a game last season. They stressed their actions were not meant as an attack on the flag. They talked and prayed about it with each other and then their families. Some family members fully supported their decision. Others were concerned.
The students said in a group interview Tuesday they’ll continue to get on one knee during the anthem, while they’re in the stadium hallway. “Somebody has to take a stand,” said second-year student Taylor McIver.
She is right. Somebody ought to take a stand. How about Olens?