ETSU players believe their white coach got fired because he supported their kneeling. Then the school hired a Black coach. Wait, what?

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Desmond Oliver is the new head coach at East Tennessee State, and he’s inherited a very unusual situation.

Desmond Oliver is the new head coach at East Tennessee State, and he’s inherited a very unusual situation.
Image: ETSU/Twitter

On Monday, while the college basketball world was preparing for the national championship game between Gonzaga and Baylor, East Tennessee State was busy naming its first Black men’s basketball coach.

Unfortunately, Desmond Oliver’s promotion comes at a very peculiar time, as he’s taking over for a white coach who may have been fired for letting his Black players kneel during the national anthem.

“No one is going to outwork us as we develop young leaders within our program who will connect with this community and make a positive impact,” said the former longtime assistant that’s finally been given an opportunity to run his own program. “My family is eager to make Johnson City our home and engage in productive dialogue about uplifting approaches to the unique challenges our young people face.”

However, while Oliver may be excited to be in Johnson City, Tenn., it doesn’t mean that the city and state are happy he’s there. According to a local report, ETSU’s former head coach Jason Shay — a white man — and his assistants had their vehicles reclaimed from a local Honda dealership after they backed players for kneeling.

“(ETSU President) Brian Noland came in here Saturday or so after the game and we talked about it. I told Noland I wasn’t going anywhere,” said dealership owner Joe Trujillo. “I’m going to support ETSU and I always will. I will not support the kneeling but there’s 14,000 students there that want education and I’m not going to abandon them.”

Mind you, players kneeling at ETSU is what led to Senate Republicans sending a letter to all presidents and chancellors of public Tennessee colleges and universities in an attempt to stop players from kneeling back in February.

“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, according to a report from ESPN. “For that to be a part in why he has to resign, then I don’t want no part of that.”

Shay was only in his first season at ETSU and had two years left on his contract. “This past year has been extremely challenging for me in many different ways,” he said in a statement. “It is the right time for a new challenge and an opportunity to reset my personal and professional goals.” Racism made Shay tap out. Black people will tell you that hatred is an extremely heavy burden to carry.

So now, in his first time serving as a head coach, Oliver — a Black man — has to work at a school with this kind of track record, while living in a town and state that has shown how little they think about Black people and Black causes. That’s a helluva “promotion.”

Far too often, in sports and society, a Black person is brought in to clean up a mess they didn’t make, and once everything is nice and tidy, they’re shipped out the door. Just look at the Oval Office. Don’t you find it quite ironic that stimulus checks were sent out to millions of Americans by the white president that preceded Obama and the one that followed. Just saying.

At his introductory press conference Monday, Oliver talked about how he wanted to bring a “fast-paced, crowd-pleasing style” to ETSU, and that he was looking to bring in hardworking, high-character players. He also said it was a priority to “re-recruit our guys.”

How do you bring in Black recruits in 2021 after a situation like this, while trying to stop players from leaving a school that’s proven that their presence and humanity isn’t desired, just tolerated for entertainment purposes?

But, that’s the thing about racism. It can box you into a corner that’s impossible to get out of at times. And the saddest part about all of this is that it’s probably the best head coaching opportunity that’s ever been presented to Desmond Oliver.

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