Emails show ECU calm, ready for possible band protest

First in a timeline series

By Emily Schultz & Jaclyn Hammond, with PNN staff

It was the last day of September 2016, and the ECU Marching Pirates were practicing on the field at the bottom of College Hill before the football game the next day. Word was spreading amongst band members that some of their number may protest before the game, during the playing of the National Anthem.

Publication1Taylor Lowe recalled that some bandmates wanted to kneel during the Star Spangled Banner. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first to do it that year and according to the Think Progress news sites, dozens of students at middle schools, high schools and colleges across the U.S. followed suit.

“I remember hearing a Chapel Hill person in the band did it, and I think that’s what spurred [ECU marching band members] to do it,” said Lowe.

News reports say 75 UNC Tar Heel fans stayed seated but raised their fists during the anthem Sept. 24, 2016. Two NC State band members knelt during the anthem Oct. 1—the same day as the kneeling-protest by 19 Marching Pirates.

But back on that last day of September, little did the band or the ECU administration know what kind of the uproar would follow the protest by “the 19.”

The Pirate News Network has pieced together a timeline of the protest from over 400 emails, and interviews with ECU administrators, Athletics Department officials and members of last fall’s Marching Pirates.

The emails cover an eight-day period from Sept. 29 through Oct. 6, 2016. PNN obtained them through an N.C. public records request.

The emails show that administration initially supported the protest by “the 19,” but appeared to switch its stance after receiving an enormous backlash from angry fans, Pirate Club members and others.

First inklings

Many of the 200-plus Marching Pirates were concerned when they heard about the possibility of a protest at ECU’s game against the University of Central Florida.

Among them, Dylan Allen and Hunter Marketto did not think Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was the best platform for their bandmates to protest, especially while wearing the Marching Pirates uniform.

Allen told PNN that he “went to Hunter after practice and I told him, ‘I think we should hold the [American] flag or do something’” as their bandmates kneeled. “You know, let’s just bring the flag to the game to show where we stand.”

At the time, Allen was a senior political science major, and Marketto was a sophomore education major.

Allen said he and Marketto supported their bandmates’ right to express themselves, but not by kneeling on field during the anthem. That, the duo felt, was an act of disrespect.

In time, band members alerted the director of the Marching Pirates, Dr. William Staub.

The first inkling of a protest appeared in the emails at 11:20 a.m. Sept. 29, when Lt. Chris Sutton of the ECU Police Department sent a link to a Campus Safety Magazine article to two Athletics Department officials. The article was about a protest during an Eastern Michigan University football game that Sutton said “never disrupted” the game and was “largely peaceful.”

At 8:54 p.m. that day, Mary Schulken, at the time ECU’s executive director of communication, sent an email to administrators that said, “We received information from the band director that as many as 20 members of the Marching Pirates may opt for a silent protest of some kind Saturday during the national anthem.

“The protest [sic] could be dropping to their knees, or standing silent or raising a fist in the air—we are not sure. The band director is urging students to make the protest respectful and at this point he says he has no reason to believe it will not be.”

She added that “we have a statement [from the chancellor] prepared and ready.”

About nine minutes later, Schulken emailed a draft of the statement to Compher, who sent it out to his staff for comments.

At 10:15 p.m., Shelley Binegar, an associate athletics director, replied, “I think this is a sound statement.”

And nearly 11 hours later, on Sept. 30, athletics official J. Batt suggested including a nod towards supporting the law enforcement community” in the statement. Batt is the senior associate athletics director for the Pirate Club, an influential—and wealthy—fan group.

Meeting with the band

Marching Pirates told PNN that Staub, their director, met with the entire band at the end of practice Sept. 30. With him was Erik Kneubuehl, ECU’s associate vice chancellor of Student Involvement and Leadership.

The band members said that Kneubuehl supported the protesters’ right to free speech, which the band took as a sign to go forward with the protest.

“I don’t know exactly what was said when Erik Kneubuehl met with them but, what they probably heard was ‘you have the right to protest,’ and whether that was the right message or not, maybe at the time it was,” Dr. Ron Mitchelson, ECU’s provost, said when PNN asked about the meeting.

PNN contacted Kneubuehl to request an interview. He declined, writing in an email that he had been “affected … in a very personal way” by the protest and did not “feel comfortable discussing it.”

Staub also declined an interview request.

‘Still a protest’

At 8:46 a.m. Oct. 1—hours before the ECU-UCF game—Dr. Virginia Hardy, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, emailed the chancellor’s chief of staff, Jim Hopf, to say that her staff was trying to pin down details of the protest.

“Still a protest,” she wrote, “but looks like only 10-15 students. They have not decided what they will do but were leaning to not just playing. … As part of our normal process, we have notified PD [ECU police] so they are aware … for possible reactions, etc.”

She added that “it appears” that band members had been talking about a protest “since at least Monday,” Sept. 26.

News of the protest spread quickly amongst ECU officials. At 9:04 a.m., Assistant Athletic Director Tom McClellan emailed an alert to Compher, Schulken and Doug Boyd, who serves as the game-day representative of ECU News Services.

“FYI,” McClellen wrote, “was just alerted that a parent of a band member who is reportedly protesting today alerted all three of our TV outlets. … Will keep you posted on the pulse of the media staffing the game.”

He added, “Have dated the chancellor’s statement … but obviously will remain on standby for any changes or revisions (and the approval to distribute.”

McClellan was in charge of releasing the chancellor’s statement to news reporters after halftime.

With that, the emails fall silent about any protest until after it actually happens.

There was no stopping it

Marketto told PNN that ECU administrators could not have headed off the protest by “the 19” who would kneel during the National Anthem.

“It was something we all kind of knew was happening. It wasn’t going to be something we stopped, you know,” he said. “It’s a cause I don’t believe in, but it’s a cause that they would die for and you know, that’s admirable for sure. There’s no stopping someone for what they believe in.”

Hardy, however, saw it differently. On Oct. 2, she emailed other top administrators to express her views about the choices that were made before the protest.

“I do believe that we could have influenced [band members] if we had been able to chat with them in advance,” she wrote. “They are supportive of each other and stand in solidarity in the end.”

No way, said Marketto. “If the chancellor would have come down before anything had ever happened, and just looked at [band director] Staub and said, ‘No, it’s a safety issue. We don’t want you doing that.’ And if Staub had told them ‘no,’ they would not have done it. That is how much we all respect Staub.”

Hardy noted as much in an Oct. 3 email to ECU administrators, saying, “These students have the utmost respect for Dr. Staub.”

Then came ‘the day’

Marketto said that although he was nervous the night before the protest, he felt like he and Allen were doing the right thing.

“Everyone wants to picture a civil war between band kids, you know hitting each other with instruments and stuff,” Marketto said. “But it was really nothing like that. We weren’t behind them as supporting their cause, but we were behind them as in supporting the right to protest and they were behind us in the same way.”

Hopf, the chancellor’s chief of staff, said in a written response to PNN that when he first heard about the possibility of a protest, his thoughts turned to “questions regarding the nature and extent of [it] and whether any specific university action would be necessary in response to the incident regarding safety, security or welfare.”

As it turns out, specific action was needed.

Schultz and Hammond produced this story for their spring 2017 class, In-Depth Reporting: Capstone.

Next: Outrage at protest swept Pirate Nation with hurricane force