Texts: Sheriff, lawmaker pushed to stop cheerleader protest

Shlondra Young, Tommia Dean, Kennedy Town
Kennesaw State University cheerleaders, from left to right, Shlondra Young, Tommia Dean and Kennedy Town stand outside the student center on the school's campus in Kennesaw, Ga., Monday, Oct. 16, 2017. The three are part of a group of cheerleaders from the Georgia college that say they'll take a knee in the stadium tunnel when the national anthem is played at Saturday's homecoming game since their university moved them off the field after an earlier demonstration. (AP Photo/Jeff Martin)

ATLANTA (AP) — A powerful lawmaker texted a Georgia sheriff, recounting with pride how they pressured a university president to take action after black cheerleaders knelt during the national anthem at a football game.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained the text messages under Georgia’s open records act.

Kennesaw State University cheerleaders were told they’d be kept off the field at future pregame activities and moved into the stadium tunnel after five of them knelt to protest racial injustice at a college game Sept. 30.

In the texts, state Republican Rep. Earl Ehrhart and Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren thanked each other for their patriotism. Ehrhart said Kennesaw State President Sam Olens had to be pressured into action.

“He had to be dragged there but with you and I pushing he had no choice. Thanks for your patriotism my friend,” Ehrhart wrote to the sheriff.

The unfolding drama led to a hastily called meeting of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia Wednesday afternoon to discuss “recent developments in a personnel matter.”

Following the meeting, the university system announced that it “is conducting a special review to look into recent allegations raised about athletic processes at Kennesaw State University.” No other details of the probe were released.

The sheriff has said that his wife, Penny, became tearful when they attended the earlier game and saw the cheerleaders kneel. In the text messages, the sheriff said he was “pissed” when Olens initially told Penny that he didn’t have the authority to do anything.

In one text which included misspellings, the sheriff wrote to Ehrhart: “Thanks for always standing up too these liberal that hate the USA.”

Ehrhart chairs a committee that allocates funds to Georgia’s public universities, including Kennesaw State, northwest of Atlanta. With 35,000 students, Kennesaw State is Georgia’s third-largest university and one of the nation’s 50 largest public institutions.

Ehrhart said he understands “the constitutional right to protest the flag and our national anthem.”

“But that doesn’t make it right, especially if protesters represent a state institution on taxpayer funded restricted venues,” he said in a statement Wednesday to The Associated Press.

“My private comments with Sheriff Warren regarding the cheerleader protest at Kennesaw State expressed my personal feelings. I stand by them,” he added. “I urge President Olens to stand firm against any student publicly disrespecting our flag at a football game or any college event. I say that as a private citizen.”

Kennesaw State spokeswoman Tammy DeMel on Wednesday didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Warren’s spokesman said Wednesday the sheriff wouldn’t comment.

Earlier, DeMel had said in a statement to AP that the decision to move the cheerleaders was part of multiple changes designed to enhance the game-day atmosphere.

The Atlanta newspaper last week asked Olens whether there were “any pressure or demands from any individuals and organizations to change the policy regarding cheerleaders at sporting events.”

“No,” Olens replied.

On Thursday, Olens is to be officially installed as president in a ceremony on its campus in Kennesaw, Georgia. Olens was the state’s attorney general before being named president of the university last November.

Though being moved off-field during the anthem, the so-called Kennesaw Five are vowing to kneel in the stadium tunnel — even though they will be outside of public view — before Saturday’s homecoming game at the school.

The cheerleaders said they closely watched national debate over NFL players kneeling during the anthem, before adopting that protest. The NFL has been embroiled in controversy over players using the anthem before games to protest against racial inequality and police brutality, protests that have spread at times outside the NFL to college and high school athletic venues.