Corrected at 9 a.m.
East Tennessee State University’s President Brian Nolan says he will change how he talks to student athletes who want to kneel during the national anthem.
At a university budget hearing, lawmakers questioned Nolan on his allowance of the men’s basketball team to protest during the anthem last weekend.
State Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, pressed Nolan on whether the protests were indicative of the university’s values.
“Frankly, sir, in my mind, putting that knee down gave the bird to our flag, sir. And I don’t see that difference. Tell me what that difference is,” said Lundberg.
Nolan asserted that his students wanted their voices to be heard but that they did not intend to disrespect veterans.
“I deeply regret the feelings of pain and animosity that have emerged throughout the region,” said Nolan. “As our players said in their own words on Saturday, they did not intend to disrespect those who have served or the flag.”
Upon pressure from Lundberg, Nolan admitted to having knowledge of the plans of student athletes to protest.
Lundberg pushed for the university president to explain why he permitted protests during the anthem. “I understand the opportunity to stand up and fight for what you believe in, I wholeheartedly believe in that, but that two and half minutes is an interesting time to take that action.”
Nolan then said, in hindsight, he “would have done some things differently,”
“I would have ensured that we would have spoken with the students in detail, provided the opportunity for our students to meet with veterans, provided the opportunity for our students to dialogue and have conversations about issues that were on their minds,” he said. “And I’m committed to having those conversations moving forward.”
When asked if it would be acceptable if players gave the bird the flag, Nolan answered, “No, sir.”
Lundberg continued to ask how that was different from kneeling. Nolan said, “Sir, I understand your perspective.”
This line of questioning comes after Senate Republicans signed a letter encouraging university presidents to punish student-athletes who protest at sporting events.
It is unclear how protesting during the anthem could affect an institution’s state funding in the future.
Correction: A previous version of this story and headline stated that President Brian Nolan would no longer allow kneeling during protests. In fact, he did not defend the players’ kneeling or commit to prohibiting it.