Sam Olens was formally sworn-in as president of Kennesaw State University on Thursday, as controversy continued over the school’s recent response to five cheerleaders who knelt before a recent football game during the national anthem.
On Wednesday, the the University System of Georgia announced an investigation into how the school responded to the controversy.
Internal KSU documents reveal the turmoil at the top in the days following the protest, as the school scrambled to try to contain a sudden firestorm. And many of the administrators’ main concern was not so much the cheerleaders' protest but the bad P.R. that came from it.
“Several cheerleaders… kneeled for the anthem…. Not good…. Much fallout,” Olens texted K.C. White, vice president of student affairs, after the game. “It will make the papers, [and] downtown…” meaning the state Board of Regents, the legislature and the governor might not be happy about the protest.
Olens wanted to meet personally with the cheerleaders right away, but administrators opposed that idea.
KSU’s top PR person, Tammy DeMel, texted to White that Olens needed to be careful. “Problem is, all the cheerleaders who knelt from what I understand are African American, so that could open a larger campus issue if you tell them not to kneel. [Olens] is fired up - wonder if he got a call from someone else?”
Olens did receive angry calls, from Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren and from state Rep. Earl Ehrhart of Cobb County, who is one of the key legislators who determine KSU's level of state funding every year.
Warren showed us his record of phone texts, where he and Ehrhart claim credit for getting Olens to promise them the protest would not happen again.
“[Olens] had to be dragged there, but with you and I pushing, he had no choice,” Ehrhart texted to Warren.
KSU documents show administrators did arrange a post-protest meeting for the cheerleaders, but the meeting was with their coach, not with Olens, to remind them that when they’re in uniform they represent KSU.
One of talking points proposed for the coach was to warn the cheerleaders about the financial consequences of controversy, “If donors and other athletic program supporters withdraw their support due to these activities, that affects the university’s ability to provide need-based scholarships and other support for your fellow students.”
Olens and other top administrators were exchanging some of the angry emails sent to them from KSU backers who wrote they would withdraw their support of the university. Administrators were also getting emails from people who supported the cheerleaders, complaining that the university was censoring free speech.
DeMel summed up the controversy in a text: “What a freakin mess.”
Administrators drafted a letter to the cheerleaders, wanting them to know they were not in any trouble: "No one in Athletics is upset with what happened on Saturday."
The documents show how administrators drafted several versions of statements to the public, to emphasize that the decision to keep the cheerleaders off of the field during the national anthem, from now on, was just a coincidence, a change that was being planned prior to the protest, it was not a reaction to the protest.