Several East Tennessee State men's basketball players say they are convinced the resignation of their coach this week was because he supported their silent protest of racial inequality before games this season.
Jason Shay, hired as the Buccaneers' head coach last year after five years as an assistant, had just finished a 13-12 season and had two years left on a contract that paid him at least $300,000 annually, including incentives. In a statement released by the university, Shay said he had "decided it is in the best interest of myself, my family and the ETSU men's basketball program to no longer continue as the head basketball coach."
"This past year has been extremely challenging for me in many different ways," he said. "It is the right time for a new challenge and an opportunity to reset my personal and professional goals."
Shay had been in the eye of the storm in Tennessee since his players protested during the national anthem. At the start of the season, the team members said they planned to kneel during the anthem and Shay promised to support them, according to Kevin Brown, ETSU's sports information director.
School officials, including president Brian Noland, did not respond to calls from ESPN, and Shay declined further comment when contacted via text.
Athletic director Scott Carter, who did not return calls from ESPN, issued a statement Thursday saying the resignation was unrelated to the controversy.
"ETSU did not fire Coach Shay nor force Coach Shay to resign," the statement said. "As outlined in the terms of the separation agreement, in Coach Shay's statement and in my previous statement, Coach Shay decided to resign."
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 in a telephone interview. "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."
Senior guard David Sloan also tweeted his support for his former coach: "thank you for sticking with us though this weird year," he wrote. "if nobody else does, I got love for you and thankful to part of your first team as a head coach!!"
So Much Love For @jshay5 And His Family...Thank You Guys For Everything��. Shay, Thank You For Taking A Stand With Us And Supporting Us When Nobody Else Did. Forever, Thankful������ https://t.co/U4giYIH0DP
- Jordan Coffin ߙ (@J2coldCoffin) March 31, 2021
The backlash started not long after players and coaches linked arms and dropped to one knee during the playing of the national anthem before a game against in-state rival Chattanooga on Feb. 15. Their protest against racial inequality quickly rippled across conservative eastern Tennessee, outraging some boosters, fans and legislators. Much of the criticism swirled around Shay, a white head coach who steadfastly supported the protest by his mostly Black players.
Some lawmakers and fans saw the demonstration not as a protest against inequality but as an insult to the flag and the service members who sacrificed to defend it.
Shay did not bend. Speaking to reporters in the midst of the controversy, he acknowledged that only veterans really know "the fear, the pain, the anxiety, the loss that they've experienced fighting for our country's freedom and rights." Then he added: "But many of us don't know the same sacrifice, fear, pain and loss the people of color have had to endure over 400 years. My team is a daily reminder to me that some things are just bigger than basketball."
Shay's position found some traction on campus, where Noland offered words of support.
"I do not feel that any of our student-athletes intended to disparage the flag, our country, veterans or anyone in our community. I feel their intent was to draw attention to a lot of the issues that are unfolding across our country," Noland said in a March 9 virtual news conference. "I am extremely hopeful that ... we as a campus can play a lead role in facilitating discussion and dialogue so that individuals across entities can come together and find commonality."
The coach also found support from students and activist groups who marched to show solidarity with him and the team, but that didn't stop withering political pressure.
U.S. Rep. Diana Harshbarger, a Republican whose district includes the university, tweeted that she was "disappointed" in the ETSU team and that their protest was "disrespectful" to veterans.
A letter signed by all 27 members of the Republican Caucus in the Tennessee Senate called on university presidents across the state system to enact policies to ban on-court protests. The famed University of Tennessee women's team knelt during the anthem on Jan. 7, one day after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
"During athletic competitions, our student athletes represent not only themselves, but also our universities and all the citizens of this state, many of whom view this form of protest as offensive and disrespectful," the letter said.
- Sen. Paul Bailey (@PaulBaileyforTN) February 23, 2021
Tennessee State Rep. Scotty Campbell, a Republican, wrote in a since-deleted Feb. 18 tweet quoted by local news outlets: "If it isn't out of disrespect and they cared about how many of their fans feel they wouldn't do it during that song. $250k annual salary and can't see fit to have players respect our anthem as Americans? Disappointing!"
Neither Harshbarger nor Campbell responded to requests for comment from ESPN.
The pushback continued until Shay's resignation. The Buccaneers lost three of the four games they played after the kneeling controversy erupted.
Carter issued a statement saying, "I fully respect Coach Shay's decision and have accepted his resignation. Coach Shay is part of our championship history at ETSU, and I thank him and his family for the efforts they have given to our university."
Shay's departure has left ETSU's well-regarded basketball program in disarray. The university is now looking to hire a new head coach, just one year after former head coach Steve Forbes left to coach at Wake Forest University after five straight seasons with at least 24 victories. Meanwhile, six ETSU players have announced plans to transfer, including at least two who entered the transfer portal after Shay's resignation.
Those in the transfer portal are freshmen Paul Smith, Truth Harris, Marcus Niblack and Sadaidriene Hall, redshirt freshman Damari Monsanto and junior Ismael Valdez. Monsanto was among the team leaders with 11.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. Shay's departure has also roiled the wider university community. Several groups, including the NAACP, are planning further protests in support of Shay and the ETSU players.
"We support Coach Shay and his efforts to seek equality for his players," Tavia Sillmon, president of the Johnson City/Washington County NAACP, said in a statement.
"It is a sad state of affairs that divisive politics have come into play in a sporting activity that would normally unify a community and that a coach, who worked his way up and truly loved ETSU, cannot stand or 'kneel' in solidarity with young men and mentor them on real life issues that they will face far beyond their college years."