Outrage at protest swept Pirate Nation with hurricane force

Second in a timeline series

By Javeria Salman & Jennifer Hines, with PNN staff

As the ECU Marching Pirates donned their purple-and-gold uniforms and strapped on their instruments on that fateful October morning, there was a sense of uncertainty about what was to come.

Publication1Band members marched onto football field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at noon to start the ECU-UCF football game by playing the National Anthem. It is a ritual they perform at every home game, but this day was about to become like no other.

Minutes later, angry fans booed their outrage at the band on the field. They shot angry emails to ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton and Athletics Director Jeff Compher. They posted their outrage to ECU’s Facebook pages. It lasted for days.

The Pirate News Network reviewed over 400 emails, obtained through a state public records request, to piece together the behind-the-scenes story of that day. It interviewed ECU administrators, Athletics Department officials and members of last fall’s Marching Pirates.

What it found suggests that ECU’s administration was caught off guard by a massive and almost primordial reaction to the entire band, university and its chancellor over a silent protest by 19 of 200-plus Marching Pirates.

‘I thought it was gonna be a few’

As soon as the first note left their instruments, “the 19” took a knee to protest injustices against the black community. Some of them continued playing their instruments. Others did not play at all.

Two other Marching Pirates—Dylan Allen and Hunter Marketto—held the American flag as both a counter-protest and as a show of support for their bandmates.

“We supported their right to express themselves; we did not support kneeling,” Allen told PNN. “That is something that [we] personally find disrespectful, if you will. And, me and Hunter wanted to honor the flag because to us, it means something different than it means to [the protesting band members].”

The rest of the band played on, as usual.

Fans reacted immediately. They booed the band off the field.

“It sucks getting booed off the field,” recalled Taylor Lowe, a Marching Pirate who didn’t participate in the protest. “I’ve been on that field for four years, and every time they [the fans] go crazy when you go out there, and that was my first time getting booed by thousands and thousands of people.”

Lowe, like all of his bandmates, knew a protest was in the offing. But he was surprised by the number. “I got mad. More people protested than I thought was going to. I thought it was gonna be a few people, then I saw more and I was like, ‘dang it’.”

ECU administrators, too, knew the protest was coming, but they also had no idea how many Marching Pirates would join in. Emails from then-communication director Mary Schulken and Vice Chancellor Virginia Hardy put the number at as few as 10 and as many as 20.

The emails also suggest that ECU’s administration likely did not expect such large, immediate and at times vicious reaction from Pirate fans.

ECU police Lt. Chris Sutton did, though. “There was no doubt that there was going to be a public outcry against the demonstration,” he told PNN, because the university is “in an area that is as close to military installations” and that there are “so many that have served [in the military] living in our community that support East Carolina.”

There also is the “passionate fan base” for Pirate football, he added.

Sutton is in charge of emergency and event management on game days.

ECU Provost Ron Mitchelson was in the stands at Dowdy-Ficklen when “the 19” took a knee, and he understood the outrage from the fans. “There’s a lot of feelings in those stands and a lot of military in this region, and a lot of feelings were hurt,” he recalled.

In Goldsboro, just to the west of ECU, sits Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. In Jacksonville, south of ECU, are Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River. East of Camp Lejeune, in Havelock, sits Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point.

Emails pour in

Seven minutes. That is all the time it took for the first fan to send the first email about the protest.

John Perdue sent it at 12:07 p.m. to Compher. The subject: “Band disgrace.”

“I’m sure you witnessed the absolute disgrace I just witnessed as several band members decided to kneel at the national anthem,” Perdue, a construction manager, wrote. “You preached all week about getting to the stands early to see the band perform and they pull a low class stunt like that.

“I hope as athletic director you address this immediately and make it known to the ignorant and disrespectful if they don’t want to stand and play for their country then get their ass off the field.”

Perdue, like many other emails, misunderstood the relationship between the Marching Pirates and the Athletics Department. The band is an academic class in the School of Music. The Athletics Department has no authority over it.

In all, 50 fans would email Staton and Compher that day, and all but a few took exception to the protest. By 2:38 p.m., the chancellor’s assistant, Christy Daniels, emailed officials asking for “direction … on how to address emails and phone calls that are already coming in about the Marching Pirates kneeling.”

Schulken, the ECU communication director, replied: “There is a prepared statement from the chancellor that has been released to the media. The messaging and language can easily be revised or updated per the chancellor’s wishes to form the basis for responses to varied constituencies.”

As it turns out, the statement was like pour salt on the wounds of already-angry fans.

‘Could not be more disappointed’

It was after halftime Oct. 1, and ECU released the chancellor’s statement to the news media, said Tom McClellan, the Athletics Department’s chief spokesman.

“Not that we thought we could sweep [the protest] under the rug or that no one would notice, because it would be in front of 40-something-thousand people that’s going to get noticed,” McClellan recalled.

“But it now heightened our chain of reaction into a response,” he said. “People vetted [the statement], people proofed it, then the decision came to release it in the third quarter.”

The statement was drafted a few days earlier by Schulken’s team at ECU News Services, “in consultation with the chancellor and chief of staff,” said Jim Hopf, who is that chief of staff. He provided that answer in a written response to PNN.

Staton’s statement said in part, “While we acknowledge and understand the disappointment felt by many Pirate fans in response to the events at the beginning of today’s football game, we urge all Pirate students, supporters and participants to act with respect for each other’s views. Civil discourse is an East Carolina value and part of our ECU creed. … East Carolina will safeguard the right to free speech, petition and peaceful assembly as assured by the U.S. Constitution.”

By the time it was released, few fans were in the mood to excuse ECU and the band members who knelt.

“I saw your statement and have to say I could not be more disappointed,” Steve Scott said that night in an email to Staton that carried the subject line, “Band Kneeling—Weak Leadership.”

Scott, who identified himself in the email as an “embarrassed alumni,” added, “Please leave the band out of the national anthem moving forward. … Their self-absorbed ‘right to express that personal view’ does not trump the rights of everyone else.”

Alumni and Pirate Club member John N. Ross, in an email to Staton, threatened to “pull all support from ECU—financially and otherwise. … ECU will not get a dime of my money as long as it supports this shameful, disrespectful display against our country.”

Assault in the bathroom

The reactions to the band members wasn’t just through email. In at least one case, it turned physical.

At 2:55 p.m., ECU police got a report of an assault in a bathroom at Dowdy-Ficklen stadium. The assault happened about an hour earlier and it involved a knife. The victim was an 18-year-old male student, and he was a Marching Pirate.

“I just didn’t expect what happened,” said Marketto, one of the two band members who held the U.S. flag during the protest. “I think out of this whole situation, I have more respect for [the assault victim] than anyone else because he went through something that he shouldn’t have.”

The next day, Oct. 2, the young man stood up at a band meeting and Marketto recalled him saying, “‘Look, yeah, that was me.’ … I love the band, I love what I do [and] that’s not gonna make me stop it.’”

The young man told his bandmates that “‘It was literally just a drunk person who just wanted to beat me up, even though I had nothing to do with it’,” Marketto said.

Sutton, the ECU police lieutenant, said the assault was something his department was concerned about and had prepared for.

“When you take something that’s emotional like the National Anthem and then you take something [that] is viewed maybe not what was meant to be but is viewed as protest against it, then you have the opportunity to create a lot of problems and that’s what we saw,” he said.

Police acted to keep anything worse from happening to the Marching Pirates by escorting band members out of the stadium. It turned out to be a good move.

“As soon as we left that stadium, there were just fans, you know, yelling at us,” said Marketto. “They were calling us a lot of names that should have been left in the Jim Crow-era.

“There were bottles flying at us. It was horrible,” he said. “I watched that happen. Something hit me in my back, I think it was a bottle, but I just kept walking.”

Over the next few days, ECU police watched over the band as a precaution. “We had to change their practice location,” said Sutton. “We had to change their route to get to the game. We had to pull in some additional resources for transportation to be able to move them.”

Mitchelson, the ECU provost, said he heard the booing, which, he added, “was pretty loud and clear. But I did not know that there was taunting and throwing items at the band, and slurs and all of that negative … I was told of that, so our concern, I can tell you, moved from freedom of expression to safety.”

In the coming days, that shift in concern would spark off another sort of controversy. This one would see ECU administrators caught between soothing already angry fans and angering the band’s supporters.

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

Next: ECU struggled to find right message about protest, band