This past season, me and my teammates on the East Tennessee State men’s basketball team decided that we were going to kneel during the national anthem. We wanted to continue to shine some light on racial injustice and police brutality in this country.
Our head coach, Jason Shay, fully supported our decision and had our backs every step of the way.
Then, last week, after our season ended, Coach Shay abruptly “resigned.”
And, yeah, you better believe those quote marks are intentional.
I saw how everything went down with Coach Shay this whole season. I know what’s up. And if you ask me, it seems like Coach was forced out because he didn’t flinch in supporting his players’ choice to kneel during the anthem.
There’s no way to know for sure because no one is talking. Everyone’s all hushed up. But it’s definitely one of those things where it’s like … come on.
Coach Shay had been an assistant for a long time. And it had been his dream to lead a D-I program. Last year ETSU finally gave him the chance. He got the job not only because he had a ton of experience, but also because his players loved him. He’d been the lead assistant when we won a school record 30 games last season, and us players called for him to be hired when Coach Forbes left to take the head coaching job at Wake Forest. Everyone on campus wanted to see him get his shot. And when it happened last May, it was all smiles.
Fast-forward to not even 10 months later. Me and my teammates are coming out of our gym after practice and this guy pulls up and jumps out of his car. A second later, he’s yelling at us.
“You guys are a disgrace!”
He didn’t step to us like he wanted to fight or anything, but it wasn’t just something in passing where he rolled down his window and yelled and kept it moving.
“You’re a disgrace to this university! How dare you disrespect the American flag? I hope this program tanks. You don’t deserve anything better.”
We didn’t engage with him, and when he left we all just walked to our cars and drove off. But it had us shook. And looking back on it now, that’s probably when we should’ve known things were going to get bad.
This whole thing actually started back in November of last year.
We were scheduled to start our season at a tournament down in Florida. Before we left for that trip, Coach asked us during a meeting whether we wanted to do anything to continue the conversation on racism and injustice in America. A couple of the other seniors and I got together and talked with our teammates. We all felt like lots of people in this country had kind of moved on from all the protests and discussions that occurred last summer. But we decided that we didn’t want to just move on, that we were going to kneel during the anthem to keep some attention focused on how things really do still need to improve.
Coach Shay was all in.
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” I remember him saying. “We’ll do it as a team.”
He basically left the decision up to us. He trusted his players. And he let us lead based on what our hearts told us to do. In short….
He had our backs.
He trusted his players. And he let us lead based on what our hearts told us to do.- Jordan Coffin
So we knelt down at that tournament in Florida, and we knelt when we played at Alabama, and on and on. For whatever reason, though, not too many people noticed at first. Things didn’t really blow up until we went to Chattanooga in mid-February for that rivalry game and knelt during the anthem. It got picked up on the news and in the paper. And as soon as that happened, the Twitter universe started popping off. It was like….
This cannot be tolerated.
How dare you disrespect our flag.
I hope you guys lose every game you play.
Coach Shay and members of his family got threats from random accounts on Facebook and Instagram. It got ugly pretty fast.
Then, not long after that, another news story went up. The headline on that one?
JOHNSON CITY HONDA RECLAIMS COACH SHAY’S LOANED VEHICLE AFTER SUPPORT OF PLAYERS KNEELING.
For whatever reason, though, not too many people noticed at first.- Jordan Coffin
It wasn’t just Coach Shay, either. All his assistants lost their courtesy cars, too. And to make things even worse, a group of state senators wrote a letter to the school saying it should ban players from kneeling during the anthem. They did that without coming and talking to us, or asking us about why we felt it was important to protest before our games. They just wanted to stop us.
By that point, the university was hearing it from all over the place. And I understand that pressure like that can really have an impact. It can have consequences. But it didn’t have to go like this. It really, really didn’t.
No matter how many times we told everyone that we weren’t protesting the flag or looking to disrespect anyone, it just seemed like some people had their own agenda and didn’t want to hear it. So many people really did assume the worst about us. But, believe it or not, even though we might be young, the decision to kneel in protest was something we talked about a lot. We really thought it through. There are players on the team who have military members in their family, people who have fought in wars going back decades. We all have the utmost respect for anyone who serves this country, and we could not be more appreciative of that service.
This was never about the flag, or the military, or disrespect. It was simply about us feeling like with time having passed since Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, some people had kind of pushed important issues to the side. And we weren’t with that.
We wanted to keep the focus, and keep the conversation going. If everyone who was so upset with us kneeling would’ve just taken a moment to reach out and speak to us, we could’ve explained our thinking and reassured them that we meant no disrespect. We could’ve exchanged perspectives. We could have learned from one another. Those conversations actually could have done some good for all involved.
But they never happened.
If they had, maybe Coach Shay would still have his job.
Instead, a good man is no longer doing what he loves to do. A principled, loyal man, someone who stood up for what was right and always had our backs, is now out of a job. Most of our players are transferring. And the ETSU athletic department is in the middle of a full-blown crisis.
All because of…????????
It really does seem like one of those things where … everyone knows what went down, but no one is coming right out and saying it on the record.
And now we’re all worse off than we were before.
Last week, when Coach Shay called that team meeting and broke the news to us, it was just such a sad, sad moment.
We knew things had gotten pretty bad, and that some people were angry about us kneeling, but we honestly never saw this coming. A few days earlier we’d all been in the weight room together putting in work, and Coach was right there with us. He was checking in, encouraging us, just like always. But then, at that meeting, he stands up in front of the team with this super sad face, this dejected, defeated look, and it’s like….
“Please don’t be upset or feel bad, but I wanted to bring you all together in person to let you know I’m going to be resigning as head coach.”
We were all shocked. We know the passion that Coach Shay has for basketball, and for just flat-out helping players grow as individuals and as men. It didn’t add up.
“At this point, I just think it’s the best thing for myself and my family.”
We were all just basically silent as he spoke. It was like we didn’t know what to do or say.
More than anything, though, it really was just so sad. It was sad because of what he said, obviously, but also because of how he said it. You can tell when someone is doing something for the right reason and they’re excited about it and looking forward to a new challenge or whatnot. This, though … this wasn’t that.
You could see it on his face.
Coach Shay was heartbroken.
And we were too.
You can tell when someone is doing something for the right reason and they’re excited about it and looking forward to a new challenge or whatnot. This, though … this wasn’t that.- Jordan Coffin
One of the saddest things about all this, and something I’ll probably never be able to fully move past, is knowing that if it hadn’t been for us kneeling Coach Shay would still have his job. If not for us trying to do something we believed in, trying to make a positive difference in the world, Coach would still be living his dream, getting his shot to show the world what he can do.
And knowing that, I mean, that’s just … rough. There’s no other way to put it, really. That’s a tough one for us to swallow.
I just hope that ETSU knows that they lost a good one in Coach Shay — a great coach, and an even better person. Hopefully, he gets hired by a school that’s going to be 100% supportive of him and have his back like he had ours.
For us players, I guess the one silver lining here is that just because he’s no longer the coach at ETSU, that doesn’t mean this is the end of Coach Shay’s relationship with us players. He is still going to be in all of our lives. Those bonds, those relationships, will last forever, and we’ll never forget the support and encouragement he gave us this past year.
I really do just want him to know that the whole team loves and supports him and his family to the fullest. It’s about more than basketball now. It’s so much bigger than that. I mean, if somebody lays their job down and puts their livelihood on the line for you, it really shows what type of man he is.
I am proud to have played for Coach Shay, that’s for sure.
And look, if you’re a university president or an AD reading this, do me a favor. If your school is in the market for an incredible person to lead your basketball team … someone with all the coaching talent in the world, but also one of the most principled and honest and thoughtful people you’ll ever meet, do everyone a favor and give Coach Shay a call.
I promise you won’t regret it.