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Texts Uncover Sheriff and Lawmaker’s Push 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.,  (AP Photo/Jeff Martin)

ATLANTA (AP) — A powerful lawmaker texted a Georgia sheriff and recounted with pride how the two 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 in a stadium tunnel at future pregame activities after five of them knelt to protest racial injustice at the 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 pressed to act.

“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.

University officials have said moving the cheerleaders before kickoff was one of several changes designed to enhance the game-day atmosphere.

After the Sept. 30 game, athletic department officials informed Olens they were making changes to pregame activities, which involved the cheerleading squad, the president said in a statement late Wednesday.

“This was the only conversation I had about any changes involving the cheerleaders and mascot,” Olens said. “The call I received from Sheriff Warren came after I was notified of the department’s decision.”

The unfolding drama prompted a hastily called meeting of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia on Wednesday afternoon to discuss “recent developments in a personnel matter.” Afterward, the university system announced, “a special review to look into recent allegations raised about athletic processes at Kennesaw State University.” No details were released.

The sheriff has said that his wife Penny became tearful when they attended the game and saw the cheerleaders kneel. In the text messages, the sheriff said he was “pissed” when Olens initially told Penny 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 to these liberal that hate the USA.”

Ehrhart chairs a panel 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 Wednesday 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 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.”

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.

Warren’s spokesman said Wednesday the sheriff wouldn’t comment.

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

The so-called Kennesaw Five are vowing to kneel in the stadium tunnel Saturday — even though they will be outside of public view — before the school’s homecoming game.

The cheerleaders said they adopted the protest after watching the national debate on NFL players kneeling during the anthem. The NFL has been embroiled in controversy over players using the anthem to protest racial inequality, protests that have spread at times to college and high school sporting venues.

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