East Tennessee State men's basketball coach Jason Shay announced his resignation on Tuesday, a surprise given that he had been on the job for only one season.
Some of his players think there is more going on than meets the eye with his retirement.
Multiple ETSU players told ESPN they believe Shay's resignation was caused by his support for their protests against racial injustice during the national anthem before this season. Every ETSU player took a knee before their game against Chattanooga on Feb. 16, sparking a vocal backlash from politicians and alumni.
"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."
ETSU senior Jordan Coffin also tweeted his appreciation for the coach's support during their protest:
The Field of 68's Rob Dauster later tweeted the players were "correct" and that Shay was forced to resign due to his support of their protests. Vincent Dixie, chair of the Democratic caucus in the Tennessee General Assembly, also tweeted that Shay was pushed out due to "pressure from boosters, alumni and politicians."
ETSU officials, including president Brian Noland, and Shay did not respond to ESPN's requests for comment, but athletic director Scott Carter issued a statement Thursday claiming Shay's decision to resign was his own:
"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."
Shay's Buccaneers team went 13-12 in his first season at the helm. It was his first season as a head coach after two decades of working as an assistant coach.
Backlash against ETSU players and coach was fierce
ETSU players likely knew they would face a significant backlash against their protest for racial justice, and that's exactly what happened.
Among the highlights were every Republican in the Tennessee Senate signing a letter demanding the protests be prohibited, and one senator in particular equating the protests to giving the flag the middle finger. There was some on-campus support for the players' constitutional right to protest, but outrage from the local government and majority of the school's donor base would be an intimidating opposition.
Shay reportedly promised his players he would support their protests when they told him their intentions at the start of the season, and held firm when asked about if the kneeling protests, which were originally suggested by a former Green Beret, were disrespectful to the U.S. military:
“No one knows the sacrifice, the fear, the pain, the anxiety, the loss that they’ve experienced fighting for our country’s freedom and rights. But many of us don’t know the same sacrifice, fear, pain, and loss that people of color have had to endure over 400 years,” said Shay.
Less than two months later, Shay was saying this:
“After much consultation and deliberation, I have 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,” Shay said in a news release. “This past year has been extremely challenging for me in many different ways. It is the right time for a new challenge and an opportunity to reset my personal and professional goals. I want to thank Dr. Noland, Scott Carter and Dr. Sander for the opportunity at ETSU and wish them the best of luck moving forward.”
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