GALESBURG, ILL – No sooner did the knees touch the floor than the politicians’ complaints started flying.
Kneeling during the national anthem before a game is like raising a middle finger to the U.S. flag, Tennessee state Sen. Jon Lundberg told the president of East Tennessee State University last month during a budget hearing.
Shortly thereafter, the coach, Jason Shay, was out of a job.
Shay quit as ETSU’s head coach last week after one season and a 13-12 record.
As part of his separation agreement he will receive $450,000 not to coach.
When you pay someone not to work it’s a pretty good sign you don’t want them around anymore.
Shay did not respond when I reached out to him. And he hasn’t spoken to any other reporters either. These type of separation agreements often have gag clauses attached.
The university athletic director Scott Carter denies that Shay was fired or forced to quit.
But Shay’s players are convinced he would still be head coach if he hadn’t supported them.
“I personally feel like him resigning is crazy,” Truth Harris, a freshman point guard, told ESPN. “It shows a lot of what is going on in this town, and in this country right now.”
“All this about us kneeling, and then Coach Shay supporting us through all of that. People should want a coach that stands behind the players through anything,” ETSU senior guard Jordan Coffin said in a video retweeted by Shay’s college-age daughter, Peija Shay. “For that to be a part in why he has to resign, then I don’t want no part of that.”
Coach Shay grew up in my hometown of Galesburg and was a hero on the court. At the time of his graduation, he was the No. 4 all-time scorer for the Silver Streaks and the top 3-point shooter in Galesburg High School’s history.
While Coach Shay hasn’t spoken with reporters since his departure, he has communicated with his high school basketball coach Barry Swanson.
“I texted back and forth with Jason since this happened and he says he was just trying to be supportive of his players,” Swanson said.
In February Shay said during a news conference: “It was a call to action our team decided to make before the season against racial inequalities and injustices. … Our intentions in no way involve disrespecting our country’s flag.”
Dr. Tom Davis coached Shay at the University of Iowa. Davis, who has also coached at Stanford, Drake and Boston universities said he admires Shay but is not surprised but by what has transpired.
“Well, you know nothing surprises me when you watch what is going on in coaching,” he said. “It’s politics, politics, politics. It’s such a dominant topic in our society today. And the fact that it would go into sports at different levels: professional, college, and even probably lower than that, isn’t surprising.
Moline native Acie Earl was a teammate of Shay’s at Iowa and later played for the Boston Celtics. He isn’t surprised that Shay would put his job on the line to support African Americans.
“He grew up in Galesburg – a diverse railroad community,” Earl said. “He was a really cool guy. He was a walk-on to the team, but a very positive player. Tennessee is a very red state ... I can see this happening in 2021.”
Not only did 27 GOP Tennessee state senators send a letter to all of the state university presidents that such protests come to an end, but wealthy donors threatened to withhold funds.
“(Donors) were taking funds if Coach Shay was the head coach next year,” Sadaidriene Hall, a freshman forward, told the Tennessean. “Everybody was pulling back on their funds if he was still there. … It might have been more (to it), but I really think they are mad because Coach Shay is a white man standing up for the Black community.”
Joe Trujillo, owner of Johnson City Honda, reclaimed the cars he provided the basketball coaching staff as part of a loaner program.
“My dad served 30 years in the United States Army,” Trujillo told a local TV station. “We’re a military family. The flag... means a lot to me.”
It’s interesting that a Honda dealer would question the patriotism of Shay and his players, I’m old enough to remember when people questioned the patriotism of those who bought Japanese cars.
Perhaps introspection isn’t Trujillo’s strong suit.
Racial sensitivity is something Shay apparently learned at an early age.
Elmer Dickerson, who is athletic director for Quest Charter Academy in Peoria, remembers meeting Shay for the first time at Gale Middle School.
“My family had just moved to the north side of Galesburg and I was one of only four Black students at Gale. The first person I met was Jason and he took me around and introduced me to all of his friends and really made me feel comfortable. He’s a wonderful person.”
During his February news conference, Shay explained why he was putting his job on the line:
“Many of us don’t understand the sacrifice, fear, loss, people of color have had to endure over 400 years. My team is a daily reminder that some things are just bigger than basketball.”
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works as a freelance reporter in the Springfield area. Scottreeder1965@gmail.com