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State Senator Places Hold On University Of Arkansas Budget Over Anthem Protest

Arkansas Sen. Alan Clark
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Arkansas Sen. Alan Clark
Arkansas Sen. Alan Clark
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Arkansas Sen. Alan Clark

A state senator has placed a hold on the University of Arkansas’ budget to be considered in next year’s legislative session and says he will introduce an amendment that would cut funding to the university by the amount spent on the women’s basketball team after six players knelt during the playing of the national anthem Thursday.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, said he doesn’t intend to punish the players but does demand answers from the administration.

On Nov. 3, six Razorbacks, all of them African-American, knelt during the national anthem to protest police shootings of African-Americans and other minorities. The players, though not necessarily the protest, were later supported by Coach Jimmy Dykes and Athletic Director Jeff Long, but it created a small firestorm on social media, including among some legislators.

Clark said legislators regularly place holds on budgets, and he has done it once previously. A hold means the budget request doesn’t advance until the senator’s concerns are considered. He said it sends a “clear signal” that a funding recipient needs to work with the senator. If the senator’s concerns aren’t resolved, the committee can still vote on the budget.

Clark has asked legislative staff members to determine the budget for the Razorback women’s basketball team, and then to write an amendment that would remove exactly that much in state funding. The University of Arkansas Athletic Department is self-sufficient and does not receive state funds.

Clark said the budget will be considered in February.

“What teeth do I have? The teeth I have is the budget, and so do I want to hold their budget? Do I want to take money away from the university? I don’t. Will I, if I have the votes? I will,” he said.

University of Arkansas Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz released a statement saying, “We trust that our legislators have the university’s best interests at heart. At a time when we are working hard to cut costs, find new sources of revenue, while seeking to increase the number of scholarships for Arkansans, every dollar counts. A cut to our academic budget in these very challenging financial times would negatively impact our students and faculty.”

On Nov. 4, University of Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long released a statement saying, “As I expressed in my statement last night, I support our student-athletes’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech and expression. I believe in standing for the national anthem and will continue to stand as a sign of respect for our military, law enforcement and those who serve our country. It is important to note that members of the women’s basketball team voiced, in their own words, that their demonstration was not directed at those who have served our nation in the military. The intent of their demonstration was to bring awareness to social injustice.”

On Monday, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Dykes said Monday he didn’t know if the players would continue the protest at their next game Friday.

Clark asked if the university condoned the protest or even encouraged it. He asked if university officials and staff members coerced anyone to participate, and he asked if nonparticipating students faced any retribution of which the university was aware.

“I’m not using coercion to try to keep them from kneeling,” he said. “I am using the budget process to get the attention of Jeff Long and the chancellor and (Coach) Dykes, to get their attention and whoever else is involved, that if they had anything to do with this, and I believe they did.”

Clark said among the issues he wants resolved are whether college athletes have “absolute, unfettered First Amendment rights.”

“If they do, I don’t want to interfere with that. But if they do, that would be an interesting situation if I was a college student at the U of A, as passionate as I am and was. I would test those limits in every way possible,” he said.

He said his ultimate goal is for the university to say it had no choice but to respect the players’ First Amendment rights or to say it did have a choice and condoned it, which would “open up the floodgates” for other behavior. He asked what would happen to a white male trombone player who wore a diaper instead of a band uniform to protest the lack of an American response to the Islamic State beheading Christians in the Middle East.

Before and after a political rally Friday on the Capitol steps, three of the four African-American females in the Legislature, Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff; Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock; and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said the players were exercising their right to peaceably protest.

On Monday, Elliott said Clark’s actions “feels like retaliation,” and the state “has much bigger problems.”

“I totally respect any legislator has a right to hold any budget, but generally speaking, it has been something to do with trying to effect some kind of policy, not something that feels like retaliation for an expression by these young women about what I consider a very, very serious issue, and that’s the injustices in our system,” she said. “Unless we’re prepared to say those injustices don’t exist, and those women don’t have a right to express their feelings to appeal to our consciences about those injustices … I don’t think this kind of response is merited.”

Clark said the players represent the university and the state, and said the anthem is not the appropriate time for a protest. He said UPS employees cannot protest while wearing their UPS uniform. He warned that the protests would spread to other levels of competition, including high school and junior high athletes.

He said he is a former youth pastor who would have told the players they would encounter problems and that their actions would be seen as a sign of disrespect. He called the players “courageous” but “misled” and were being used by “politically correct faculty.” He wondered whether the university would be as tolerant with Second Amendment rights as it’s being with First Amendment rights, though he said he’s not encouraging allowing students to carry weapons on campus.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson released a statement Friday saying, “By standing at attention when our national anthem is played, we show honor and respect to all of those who sacrificed everything to protect the freedoms we enjoy today – including the right to express our opinions. I hope to understand more fully the message these young ladies were trying to convey, but I would encourage student athletes to find ways to both respect the flag and to engage in public debate on issues they care about.”

Copyright 2016 KUAR

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics.