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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas basketball players kneel during the playing of the national anthem prior to an exhibition game against Oklahoma Baptist on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2016, in Fayetteville. ( Michael Woods)

Upset that University of Arkansas officials support six women basketball players who knelt during the national anthem last week, several Republican lawmakers have threatened to disrupt funding for the state's largest university.

Following the lead of other collegiate and professional athletes nationwide who have refused to stand during the anthem, the women told reporters after Thursday's home exhibition win over Oklahoma Baptist University that they had chosen to protest police killings of blacks and other minority-group members.

Women's basketball coach Jimmy Dykes said he had spoken with players about their plans ahead of time, and was joined by Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long and Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz in offering support for their right to express their feelings.

Still, the team prompted angry reactions from many fans, and at least three Republican lawmakers took to social media to criticize the school.

Sen. Alan Clark of Lonsdale, Rep. Kim Hammer of Benton and Rep. Laurie Rushing of Hot Springs suggested they would either decline to increase the university budget or cut it. The next legislative session starts in January.

"Cutting the university's budget in response to the athletes exercising their First Amendment rights is ridiculous and irresponsible," said Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, whose district includes the University of Arkansas campus.

Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said he had not had conversations with many members of the House, but said he plans to speak to them about "unintended consequences."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

The University of Arkansas' athletic program is self-sustaining and does not receive money from the state general fund, according to the athletic department.

Clark said he would offer an amendment to a $190 million appropriations bill for the university and its related entities to cut funding in an amount equal to the budget of the women's basketball program.

According to Razorbacks athletics spokesman Kevin Trainor, the women's basketball budget was $4,278,379 in 2016.

Reached by phone Monday, Clark said his issue wasn't with the players who knelt, but with the school administration, whom he accused of having an inconsistent free speech policy when it comes to other students.

"Universities today are not known for being the biggest places for free speech," Clark said. "We've got microaggressions, we've got opening your mouth for anything being considered hate speech."

Clark also said he believed the student-athletes were operating under the direction of a faculty member or administrator, though he said he had no evidence to support this claim and had not spoken to any of the women on the basketball team.

"I despise the fact they are hiding behind six probably awesome young ladies and the First Amendment," Clark said.

A spokesman for the University of Arkansas denied that anyone at the university had told told the players to kneel before the game.

"They were under no direction to do so, it was their choice," university spokesman Mark Rushing said.

Rep. Rushing, who is of no relation to the university spokesman, also expressed dismay with the university leadership in a statement criticizing Dykes and Long for giving their support.

Her husband, Cliff Rushing, said the representative was undergoing a routine medical procedure, and he spoke on her behalf.

"She wants to be clear that she doesn't disagree with their cause. She said she disagreed with the venue where it was allowed to happen," Cliff Rushing said. "She was wanting to vote against any of the funding that goes to their salaries that is from the general fund."

The third lawmaker who threatened to take action on the university budget, Hammer, did not respond to a phone call Monday. In a Facebook post made the night of game, Hammer argued that other collegiate coaches had persuaded players to stand during the anthem.

"The U of A Lady Razorback Basketball team are welcome to kneel during the National Anthem to express their right to freedom of speech," Hammer wrote. "I will express mine when the U of A is in front of us asking for budget increases."

While states are not required by the U.S. Constitution to fund certain programs, taking political action against the university for protected speech is legally dubious, said John DiPippa, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Bowen School of Law, which also receives state funding.

"Generally, courts are reluctant to determine motivations of legislators, especially in First Amendment cases," DiPippa said. "Once you get into targeting activity ... then you have a clearer First Amendment speech issue showing up."

In addition to threatening a budget cut, Clark said he had requested a hold on the university appropriation with the support of other lawmakers, though he declined to name others beside Hammer and Rushing.

Holds are a relatively routine action taken when lawmakers have questions or concerns about an appropriation bill that they would like to have answered.

Pointing to Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in publicly funded schools, Leding said Clark's proposal to cut an amount from the university's appropriation equal to the women's team budget could violate federal law.

"That would seem to fly in the spirit of Title IX, if not actually violate it," Leding said.

Leding said he has heard from students and constituents who are in support of and opposed to the players' protest. He also said he reached out to one of the players on Facebook to have a private conversation with the team, but has not heard back.

Steinmetz said in a statement late Monday that he believes "legislators have the university's best interests at heart."

Dykes said Monday he doesn't know what the players will do in their next game. The team's first regular season game is Friday -- Veterans Day.

Reporters Brian Fanney and Mike Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette contributed to this story.

A Section on 11/08/2016

Print Headline: UA anthem kneel draws threat; 3 lawmakers talk funding cut; peer questions legality

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Archived Comments

  • Dontcallmenames
    November 8, 2016 at 8:43 a.m.

    Everyone of you liberals commenting know that if the players had done this to protest gay "marriage", you would have been pulling your hair out, calling the girls names and asking your Dumbocrat leaders to do something about it!

  • GeneralMac
    November 8, 2016 at 8:53 a.m.

    I doubt any of those naïve players who knelt could even explain what REALLY happened in Ferguson MO ( hands up, don't shoot) or in Minnesota ( shot while handcuffed)

    The evidence didn't match the lies the "eye witnesses" told.

  • applegg
    November 8, 2016 at 8:56 a.m.

    People have a right to protest. However, schools and their funding providers also have a right to expect proper respect and appropriate behavior. For example, if they held up signs saying "f*** USA", you could expect there would be consequences, such as ejection from play. They can do what they want on their own time, but using this forum for their protest is, IMHO, not appropriate.

  • GeneralMac
    November 8, 2016 at 9 a.m.

    It seems coach Dykes is regretting his original comment that he was......." very ,very, proud"...........of the players who knelt to protest.

    He sure is back pedaling away from that comment every day since

  • TheRealBroncoFan
    November 8, 2016 at 9:03 a.m.

    Liberal , conservatives whatever, right is right and wrong is wrong. These young ladies protested peacefully to bring attention to a serious matter. Yet, the self serving wrap myself in the flag fake patriots are condemning them. And before, you judge how patriotic I am or my family. 9 members of my family including myself have served in the military. Those young ladies are exercising the rights that many have fought and died for. Address the issue as to why they are protesting and not the protest. Looking at these comments when the KKK flies the american flag and rebel flag they call themselves patriots and it is acceptable isn't that an oxymoron bc the rebels were traitors.

  • Slak
    November 8, 2016 at 9:03 a.m.

    Sports teams represent the schools. If a State school, they represent the State.
    They can use their first amendment freedom for their personal communications.
    They cannot use their first amendment freedom to represent the school and the State...unless the school or State allow it.
    When they have that uniform on, they are not on their personal time.
    LOL, try protesting fracking while wearing a gas company uniform on gas company time and see how your termination holds up in court.

  • ARMNAR
    November 8, 2016 at 9:21 a.m.

    But they weren't doing that, DontCallMeSmart.

    So what's your point again?

  • Jackabbott
    November 8, 2016 at 9:40 a.m.

    If they want to kneel, then go to National cemetery,kneel and thank the men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice to defend you. Or if you hate them too, go to your church and kneel down and pray to God or if you deny God, then kneel down before a selfie of yourself, Obama, Clinton and a stack of $100 bills.

  • Razorbacker1
    November 8, 2016 at 9:41 a.m.

    Back not long ago the athletes were in the locker room during the anthem and alma matter. Also with pro football. If this continues to be a problem just go back to how it used to be and have the athletes come out after the anthem. It gives the coaches a few more minutes to go over last minute strategy etc. This could be a solution to all the taking a knee stuff... Bottom line is if they continue taking a knee there won't be 200 people at their games this year... And the local Elem. schools that are given free tickets will find another field trip to take instead of having to explain to the kids what is going on.

  • barcoder
    November 8, 2016 at 9:42 a.m.

    A friend of mine was she they could not wear her Trump T-shirt into the polling station (Scott Ar) this morning. Was she denied her freedom of speech?

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