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Board of Regents to review KSU handling of cheerleaders' protest

The Georgia Board of Regents will conduct a special review of how Kennesaw State University responded to the decision by five African-American cheerleaders to kneel during the national anthem in silent protest of police misconduct and racial inequality.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Tuesday that Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart boasted in a series of text messages about pressuring KSU president Sam Olens into keeping the school’s cheerleaders off the field during the national anthem after they knelt during the anthem for the first time during the Sept. 30 game. Since then, the cheerleaders have not been allowed to come onto the field until after the anthem.

Olens previously said “no” when asked if there any pressure or demands to change the policy regarding cheerleaders at sporting events, in a written response to questions from the AJC last week. KSU officials have said decision to keep all cheerleaders off the field during the anthem was made by the university’s athletics department.

The board of regents, which hired Olens in October 2016, held a closed-door session Wednesday afternoon to discuss the situation as a personnel matter.

“The University System of Georgia is conducting a special review to look into recent allegations raised about athletic processes at Kennesaw State University,” a one-sentence statement said.

The board declined further comment, a spokesman said.

MORE: Texts show Cobb sheriff, lawmaker pushed KSU president on cheerleaders

Olens, who is scheduled to be installed as KSU’s president officially Thursday, said in a two-paragraph statement later Wednesday that he talked to Warren after athletics department officials had made the national anthem change. Warren said in text messages with Ehrhart that he talked to Olens and was “assured” the cheerleaders would not be on field until after the national anthem.

Olens, Georgia’s former attorney general, said in his statement he regrets how the situation has unfolded and admits “that the circumstances could have been handled better.” Olens added he’d welcome a meeting with the cheerleaders.

Davante Lewis, who’s acted as a spokesman for the cheerleaders, called Olens’ statement disingenuous, saying he could have met with them before. Lewis said he’s glad the regents are conducting the review.

At some point after the cheerleader protest, Olens exchanged text messages with K.C. White, KSU’s vice president for student affairs, pushing for a meeting with the cheerleaders, the documents show. KSU officials were worried Olens’ presence at a meeting with the cheerleaders might be “intimidating” and agreed against the idea., the documents show.

Some National Football League players — beginning with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — began taking a knee during the anthem to raise awareness about police brutality and racial inequality across the nation. President Donald Trump has blasted players who kneel, calling it disrespectful.

RELATED: Roger Goodell explains why NFL did not create rule requiring standing during national anthem

KSU officials were worried about similar actions on its football field before the five cheerleaders took a knee at the Sept. 30 game, documents reviewed by the AJC show.

Officials discussed numerous ideas to prevent students from kneeling during the anthem, including talking points that said “it is expected” they stand for the anthem and that doing otherwise may become the “unwritten part of your personal resume,” the documents show.

The 197 pages of documents were shared with the AJC by Lewis, who said he received them through the Georgia Open Records Act. The AJC obtained some of the same documents through its own open records requests.

KSU official Mindy DeBruce emailed associate legal counsel Nwakaego Nkumeh on Sept. 27 asking what to do if anyone takes a knee during a game, the documents show. Officials talked about discussing the matter with Olens. The documents do not indicate whether Olens was in the loop before Sept. 30.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Kennesaw State cheerleaders take a knee; some in Cobb take offense

On Oct. 3, three days after the cheerleaders’ actions on the field, KSU interim athletics director Matt Griffin prepared several talking points.

They say KSU respects “the right of our student-athletes to exercise their right” but warn any actions they take will be on the “unwritten part of your personal resume.” They also say “when you wear the uniform, you are representing Kennesaw State University and that comes with responsibility.”

One draft talking point said “it is our expectation that our staff and student-athletes stand for the national anthem.”

Jeff Milsteen, KSU’s chief legal affairs officer, stressed in one reply “moving the ‘when you wear the uniform’ bullet point closer to the top since I think that is the central point we are trying to make.

The cheerleaders, whom some now call the Kennesaw 5, say they’ll kneel inside the stadium when the anthem is played.

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