A torrent of angry emails flowed into the inbox of East Carolina University Chancellor Cecil Staton in the hours after 19 marching band members took a knee during the national anthem at an Oct. 1 football game.
Donors promised to stop sending checks. One parent threatened to pull a child out of ECU. Some called for the new chancellor to resign, and one man suggested that he should take his own life. Staton reached out to his boss, UNC President Margaret Spellings, and sought advice from N.C. State University Chancellor Randy Woodson in handling the tense situation.
Staton wrote Spellings and Board of Trustees Chairman Steve Jones that afternoon, briefing them on the situation. He wrote that one band member reported to police that he was assaulted in a restroom under the student section after halftime by several white males, “and a knife was involved.”
“Today was a difficult day and I do not mean the football loss,” Staton wrote, adding, “We are getting a lot of negative responses and a few positive. The media is all over it.”
After a public records request, the News & Observer reviewed more than 450 pages of emails to and from Staton following the Oct. 1 game in Greenville. More than a dozen band members knelt during the playing of the national anthem, joining in a national wave of protests against police shootings of African-Americans. The ECU protest elicited a chorus of boos from fans in the stadium, and the band had to have a police escort from the game after members were spat on and pelted with trash.
Most of the emails expressed embarrassment and outrage, saying that band members had no right to protest while representing ECU in the purple and gold uniform. Many also faulted Staton’s handling of the controversy after he issued a statement at halftime saying he understood why people were upset, but that the university would respect students’ rights to express their views. “East Carolina will safeguard the right to free speech, petition and peaceful assembly as assured by the U.S. Constitution,” his statement said.
Two days later, ECU officials, including Band Director William Staub, seemed to change their stance, saying “protests of this nature by the Marching Pirates will not be tolerated moving forward.”
Our group of 12 will not return to any athletic events this year, we will not renew our season tickets, and I am pulling my child from your school after this semester. ... You and these band members are an embarrassment and disgrace not only to our University but to our nation as well. Can’t wait until you’re fired.
Wes Adams, in an email to ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton
Even before the game was over, one game attendee emailed Staton. “Our group of 12 will not return to any athletic events this year, we will not renew our season tickets, and I am pulling my child from your school after this semester,” wrote Wes Adams. “Unbelievably disrespectful. If this is going to continue to be allowed you better think long and hard about canceling military appreciation day. You and these band members are an embarrassment and disgrace not only to our University but to our nation as well. Can’t wait until you’re fired.”
Another, identified as Christian Eastman, wrote that his family would stop donating to the university. “In total, I would estimate our family’s generosity is well north of $70k,” he emailed to the chancellor. “After what I witnessed today, I am no longer going to be so quick to support my beloved Pirates. ... I know this is a tough situation for you but I hope you realize the magnitude of the situation.”
Matthew Melton wrote that the band members’ display was “totally inappropriate.” “I ask you to do the right thing,” Melton wrote to Staton. “First dismiss the students from the band. Second please put in your notice and resign.”
Several writers decried what they characterized as the university’s politically correct response, and some said they were shocked by the statement from Staton, a former Republican state senator in Georgia.
Jonathan Holsinger referenced San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who started the kneeling protests. “So Chancellor,” wrote Holsinger. “We are now supporting lame NFL quarterbacks instead of those who defend YOUR very freedoms which are protected by the brave young men and women of this country who are willing to die doing so?? ... The world, definitely including you, needs to get away from this ‘touchy feely’ way of living and get back to what this country was founded on.”
An African-American student, who was not identified, wanted a statement of condemnation from ECU about “the racist, discriminatory, verbal and physical attacks being brought upon the band members who simply wanted to take a stand for what they believe in.”
Not all the emailers lashed out at the band and Staton. David Kaun, who said he taught at University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote that Staton’s response was “simply super moving for me.” He added: “So ... what I want to do by way of expressing my very strong admiration for what you’ve done is to make a modest contribution ($1,000) to your campus’s band ... in thanks to you and the totally cool band members.”
What I want to do by way of expressing my very strong admiration for what you’ve done is to make a modest contribution ($1,000) to your campus’s band ... in thanks to you and the totally cool band members.
David Kaun, in an email to ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton
An ECU researcher, Yoshi Newman, applauded Staton, saying, “You have won me over. I am a staff member at ECU and proud to be part of a educational community that stands for free speech, open and inclusive dialogue.”
Others worried about future protests, particularly at the next scheduled Pirates game against Navy. “Can we get the Navy Marching Band to honor the Colors prior to the game next Thursday?” Todd Jenkins asked.
One band member pleaded with the chancellor to keep the Marching Pirates safe. The member, who carried a flag and did not participate in the protest, said he supported those who took a knee. But he was worried. “The fans waited for us to leave so that they could violently harass us,” wrote the student, whose identity was redacted by ECU under federal student privacy law. “Racial slurs, death threats, and even physical attacks (my mother came close to a confrontation with a drunk man who had lost his temper) were something that took place today. Something has got to be done.”
The emails also shed light on how ECU officials tried to manage a situation that escalated on Oct. 1.
They had some inkling that a protest was likely and quickly put together a statement. Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for student affairs, warned the chancellor about what was about to happen before 9 a.m. ahead of the noon game. “Still a protest but looks like only 10-15 students,” she wrote. “They have not decided what they will do but were leaning to just not playing. If they don’t play, then it will impact their grade because this part of a course.”
On her way back from Dallas, Spellings suggested Staton contact Woodson, who had been faced with a similar protest at a Wolfpack game. “I thought he managed a tough situation well,” she wrote. Staton emailed Woodson: “If your experience offers any lessons, or wisdom, I would be grateful for a chance to speak for a few moments sometime tomorrow,” he wrote.
By Sunday morning, 80 emails had arrived, most of them negative. A member of the ECU Foundation board had threatened to quit. ECU officials discussed how to respond and whether Staton should record a video message.
By Sunday evening, Staton emailed a couple of trustees saying he wanted to hold a telephone meeting with the board. “I want to get to the heart of this quickly,” he wrote.
Also on Sunday, Hardy updated ECU officials on a “productive” 2.5-hour meeting with the band, whose members agreed not to kneel at future games. She wrote, “I did not ‘make’ them or ask them ... they got there by themselves based on their open dialogue.”
In an email to Provost Ron Mitchelson, Staton said there was pressure from trustees: “Some of the trustees speaking the loudest expect there to be some action taken against those students who participated even if in the academic context,” Staton’s email said. “And we were hoping for a potential statement from the band this morning expressing some contrition, but more importantly a recommitment to the purpose of the band and the requirements of those honored to wear that uniform.”
By Monday, the band director, music director and dean sent out a statement saying future band protests wouldn’t be tolerated. Staton’s name wasn’t on the statement, but emails show he was involved in crafting it. He also met with the band that day, and emailed a letter to trustees, local Board of Governors members and Spellings.
“The band exists to support athletics and to foster Pirate spirit, not as a vehicle for personal political opinions,” Staton wrote, adding that it would be up to the professor and band leader to determine whether the protesters would suffer any impact on their grades, since band constitutes an academic course. Any future refusal to follow instructions on the field, he said, “will be met with swift action including potential removal from the Marching Pirates.”
The chancellor said it was time to rebuild trust between the Marching Pirates and Pirate Nation. “These 19 students do not represent ECU or Pirate Nation,” his letter said. “They represent themselves. Going forward, they will not be allowed to utilize the privilege of wearing the uniform of the Marching Pirates to promote their individual agendas.”
The “will not tolerate” statement was applauded by many, according to Staton’s emails. But at least one alumnus didn’t agree. Jonathan Dixon wrote to ECU officials, saying he wasn’t proud of his alma mater for taking a stance against freedom of expression.
“East Carolina’s Motto is Servire – who did we serve today; our students or an angry mob threatening to withdraw their funds?” Dixon asked.
When the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about the dust-up on Tuesday, Spellings forwarded it to Staton, writing, “You have made the big time. Great job in the way you have handled things.”