Major Redz, students protest during game

Senior Gianna Dowell of Evansville, Ind., kneels in protest as the national anthem is played before the start of the WKU vs. Vanderbilt football game Saturday, Sept. 24, in Smith Stadium. During the protest coordinated by the MajorRedz, members of the crowd chanted “U.S.A.” and yelled “what the f*** are y’all doing?” while protestors yelled “Black Lives Matter.” A beer can was thrown in the direction of the protesters but didn’t hit anyone. Ebony Cox/HERALD

Bryson Keltner

Disclaimer: Shantel Pettway, coach of the Major Redz, has worked for the Herald in the past as a police and general assignment reporter. She now writes for the Talisman.

The WKU Major Redz dance group protested at the football game against Vanderbilt University Saturday, Sept. 24 by kneeling during the national anthem.

At the beginning of the football game, as the Star Spangled Banner played, the Major Redz and a few other students knelt while others in the crowd stood at attention.

The Major Redz group is a student-led dance organization that started in 2010. It involves majorette-style dancing that promotes school spirit, entertainment and diversity at most home sporting events.

The protest initially sparked criticism on social media, questioning whether a student organization had the right to “interrupt” the anthem, as some users commented. Vice President of Student Affairs Brian Kuster had a brief answer to this question.

“That was their right as a citizen,” Kuster said.

Louisville senior Shantel Pettway has danced for the Major Redz for two years and now serves as their coach. The day after the game, Pettway tweeted a video of the Redz during the anthem. She said in the tweet that the protest would not be the last.

“For every home game I know for certain that we will take a knee,” Pettway said. “I, as a leader, don’t feel like any movement just starts and stops.”

Pettway then described the students’ reasoning for participating in the “peaceful protest,” saying they knelt to pay respect to those who have served in the military but to “not stand” for social injustices in the country today.

Pettway shared that Sharnesa “Neccie” Miles, also a Louisville senior, was the dancer who suggested the idea for the pre-game anthem. Miles approached the group two days before the protest using the messaging app GroupMe.

Some of the dancers and the organization’s adviser, Josclynn Brandon, have been targeted with some negative comments on social media since the protest. WKU student activities director, Charley Pride, weighed in on the backlash.

“It’s a freedom of expression,” Pride said. “A freedom of speech that is within their rights both as a student organization and individuals. Anytime someone uses their freedom of speech, there can be that [backlash].”

Pettway addressed those who oppose the students protesting.

“We’re still showing respect to those who fought for our country, but they fought for the freedom of all people,” Pettway said. “There are sadly things going on on this campus that show people are not letting us progress and in the world that show people are still holding judgmental views towards other groups.”

This protest comes after two incidents involving a student whose car was vandalized with a racial slur and a faculty member who received racist letters.

Pettway said the Major Redz were initially concerned about losing its support, friends and dancing privileges, but it still moved to go through with the protest before the group entered the stadium.

“Before we walked out for the game, I asked everybody, ‘Are you sure that you want to do this?” Pettway said. “Why do you want to do this? What are you trying to accomplish?’”

Pettway went on to say the women agreed on the timeliness of the recent instances on campus and in the nation pivoted them to go through with it.

The Redz were not the only students who knelt. After clearing the idea with its adviser, the Redz drafted an email stating what it was doing. The team used the email and word of mouth to invite different organizations that focus on minority groups to participate. The team also reached out to football players, Topperettes and cheerleaders they know personally.

One of those students was Louisville junior Robin Lester.

“I found out about the protest by word of mouth,” Lester said. “I think it’s a great thing to do because of everything happening in the word and all the events that have happened on campus recently.

Pride agreed the Major Redz had the right to protest during games and responded to the organization’s decision to continue its demonstration.

“As we continue to educate our students on what is and isn’t appropriate when it comes to freedom of speech, hopefully, they will be able to have civil discussions and understand what people are trying to say and why they are trying to do things,” Pride said. “One part of it is understanding and two is tolerance. Just because you don’t like what someone says doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”

Reporter Bryson Keltner can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]