Four out of five KSU cheerleaders who kneeled did not return to this year’s KSU squad, find out why
Kennesaw, GEORGIA — On Sept. 30, 2017, five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders took a knee during the national anthem at a home game, taking a page out of former San Francisco 49er Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s agenda to protest against racial injustice in the United States.
The following reporting efforts of the Sentinel, KSU’s student-ran newspaper, led to a series of controversies that arguably led to the resignation of former president Sam Olens earlier this year. Most recently, the cheerleaders saga has been revamped, as the Sentinel recently broke the story about how four out of the five cheerleaders didn’t returning to the this year’s squad.
With the controversy coming back to light, there is a lesson for student journalists to learn from the Sentinel leadership about the issues that surround reporting against the school that employs them.
Madeline McGee, an alumna of KSU, was the news editor for the Sentinel during the controversy surrounding Olens and the KSU cheerleaders in 2017. Initially, McGee was not present at the game when the cheerleaders first “took a knee” but originally heard about the story from the Marietta Daily Journal, in which then Cobb County Sheriff Neil Warren published a column, expressing his outrage of the cheerleaders’ incident.
Her coverage started when McGee attended the following Kennesaw State football game and then realized the cheerleaders who “took a knee” during the national anthem were not present at the next scheduled game.
“The funny thing about that is that nobody was even aware that it had happened until he [Warren] wrote that column and it sort of blew up,” she said.
McGee said she and the Sentinel editorial board grew suspicious of the connection between their non-presence and the protest the week prior. “We started doing some digging and sure enough, it definitely seemed like there was an indication that it was retaliatory,” she said.
Moving forward, McGee said she found the biggest challenge from reporting on this controversial topic was the lack of transparency from the Kennesaw State University administration.
“As soon as there started to be public interest in whether or not the administration had played a role in silencing the cheerleaders’ protests, they sort of clammed up immediately and were not willing to speak about it,” said McGee.
She said she found it very disheartening that Olens, also known to many as the father of the Georgia Open Records Act, remained “hushed” and elusive about a potential violation of the First Amendment.
McGee received the first-place award for “Excellence in Collegiate Journalism” from the Fund for American Studies for her reporting on legal and ethical violations within the university’s police department. McGee currently works as an editorial research assistant for the New York Times.
Investigative journalism is not a new to McGee. During her tenure as Sentinel’s news editor, she said she found herself in many situations where she would seek information from the university administration that might potentially make the university look bad and, therefore, the university would not be very forthcoming.
One step to covering controversy is to know where to look for your information, said McGee. She is an enthusiast of data journalism and much of her reporting on campus incident stories is based on crime statistics.
“That’s why I think data is always your best friend because numbers can’t lie. People do.” – Madeline McGee
She said her second step in covering a controversy was to remain tenacious and neutral in the face of opposition, and at the same time, keep a skeptical eye.
“I think when you’re an investigative reporter, you never want to make assumptions. It’s never your job to stand on any side of any issue,” McGee said “It’s your job to find the truth and present that truth to the public and allow the public to make their own decisions about what course of action should be taken regarding political officials,” said McGee.
Although the Sentinel did not face backlash or threats of censorship from the administration, they faced a series of backlash from readers, with some accusing the editorial board and staff of reporting with bias toward the cheerleaders and even some accusing them of the same toward the university’s administration.
“I would say that [censorship] is more harmful than any backlash that we can ever get from the public.” – Madeline McGee
“Student journalists are definitely in danger of being censored when they cover an issue like this and we’re living in a time where increasingly, people want to curate their own realities and for campuses where university administrators have the ability to exercise power over student voices, that can make for dangerous displays for censorship,” McGee said. “I would say that is more harmful than any backlash that we can ever get from the public.”
One example of a collegiate student-run newspaper facing censorship is the Liberty Champion from Liberty University. Unfortunately, the censorship from the university is a reality for the student press.
Even though the Sentinel was not censored about the coverage of the cheerleaders taking a knee last year, Rick Crotts, curation team manager of Cox Media Group and adviser of the Sentinel, made a suggestion that this year’s news editor looks into possible protests before the 2018 football season started. She reached out to the former cheerleaders with only one responding, refusing to be interviewed but leaving her with one vital detail – four of the five kneeling cheerleaders did not return to the team this year.
“At the time, I wasn’t able to confirm that this was true by looking at the roster, which is why I emailed Tammy [DeMel, assistant vice president for Kennesaw State communications] later on and asked why the cheerleaders were left off the team,” said Sabrina Kerns, news editor of the Sentinel. Kerns is the driving force for investigating the former cheerleaders and their disappearance at 2018 KSU football games. She is majoring in journalism and emerging media at KSU.
She said her biggest challenge is the lack of transparency from the Kennesaw State athletics department and have been very tentative in giving her the recent roster despite her requesting it several times.
“I called about a week or so ago and one of the faculty members said that they had uploaded it to the website, but there is still no roster to be found,” Kerns said.
“Actually, now when you try to click on the link to the roster on the website, it says the page no longer exists. I don’t know if this in an error that they still don’t know about or if they are still unwilling to share the roster with me for some reason.”
Kerns eventually was able to confirm the story by obtaining the roster from the football team’s Twitter account.
Along with their spokesman Davante Lewis, the former five 2017 KSU cheerleaders said they suspect the head coach may have a private team of cheerleader applicants. Kerns said she is still not receiving the information she needs in regard to the accusation and is currently looking to draft an open records request.
Kerns also said that a huge difficulty lies in the cheerleaders’ unwillingness to speak about the issue.
“I know they must be tired of being interviewed, seeing their names in the newspaper, reading hate-filled comments on social media and just having their name out there in general, but I thought they would want everyone to know the truth of what they are going through and what they think really happened,” Kerns said.
“They fought through it before, and I thought that they would fight through it again. We have Davante Lewis to speak with, and I appreciate that he was so willing to talk to me and let me know what he and his sister think happened, but I want to hear from these women directly.”
When giving advice to student journalists about investigative journalism, Kerns said if you have a question, no matter what it is, there is an answer out there.
“If you’re asking around about a piece of information you need or a tip you want confirmed, and it seems like no one will answer you, keep asking, she said. “Search through documents, file open records requests or Freedom of Information requests. Know what tools are available to you.”
Cory Hancock, the former editor-in-chief of the Sentinel, also gives advice about the roadblocks the newspaper faced during the 2017 protests and encourages student journalists to press on despite the obstacles.
“There were lotta’ times last fall where we would hit a roadblock, or somebody would talk to us, or any other number of things, and we just had to keep pressing on,” Hancock said. “It’s not an easy thing to cover, and anything dealing with some sort of controversy is it, but you have to be critical and you have to be skeptical when people are trying to hide things. “
“I think the worst thing a student journalist could do would be to recluse away from the nitty-gritty parts of the story that are crucial to telling the truth.”
Marquis Holmes is a senior at Kennesaw State University majoring in journalism and emerging media with a minor in military leadership. He is also editor-in-chief of the Kennesaw State University newspaper, the Sentinel. Holmes is the fall intern for SPJ Region 3. He will be graduating in December 2018. firstname.lastname@example.org