ATLANTA – A Georgia university which moved its football cheerleaders inside a stadium tunnel after a group of black cheer squad members knelt during the national anthem has decided to let them again take the field during pre-game ceremonies.
This time, it will be at a game where military members are honored.
In a letter to students and faculty, Kennesaw State University President Sam Olens said Wednesday that freedom of speech must be protected.
Olens added that the cheer squad will be allowed on field before the national anthem at the game Saturday, which is Military Appreciation Day at the public university near Atlanta.
Five cheerleaders had taken a knee during the anthem to protest U.S. racial inequality at a Sept. 30 game, prompting a barrage of emails and calls from furious school boosters and alumni. They said they took their action after seeing similar protests by some NFL players.
University officials subsequently announced the cheer squad would be moved off the field before kickoff as part of several changes designed to enhance the game-day atmosphere.
The reversal announced Wednesday marks a return to the original pregame ritual of cheerleaders being on field during the singing of the anthem.
"I will stand during the National Anthem to honor the women and men who have served in our nation's armed forces," Olens wrote. "While I choose this action, I do not believe that this debate has to be a choice between honoring our veterans and protecting the freedom of speech. We must be able to do both."
The president's announcement three days before the upcoming game was intentional, said Davante Lewis, the brother of one of the protesting cheerleaders who has acted as a spokesman for the group.
Lewis said he expects them to kneel as they've done in several games already, but there will be far more pressure on them Saturday since the stadium will be full of military service people and veterans for the game against Charleston Southern University.
"The amount of pressure now on them is increased and I think that's what he wanted to do," Lewis said. "Now they're going to face this political pressure of having to do it in front of an army of people who are military, and having to do it knowing that people are going to be saying they're being extremely disrespectful."
The National Football League has been embroiled in controversy over players using the anthem to protest racial inequality — demonstrations which have spread to some colleges and universities.
Lewis and others expect the demonstrations to continue at the college level. Kennesaw State's cheer squad also cheers at basketball games, and that season is just getting underway.
"I think these are turbulent times in our country and marginalized communities are looking for ways to speak up and resist some of the injustice we face," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The group had asked the state's board of regents to investigate how Kennesaw State handled the situation.
Clarke said Wednesday's statement "makes clear that the school got it wrong" but added that the university is now respecting the First Amendment rights of its students and she considers that a positive development.
With 35,000 students, Kennesaw State is Georgia's third-largest university and one of the nation's 50 largest public institutions.
"Hopefully other schools like KSU will see the writing on the wall should they attempt to take action to restrict the rights of their students," she said.