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AP file photo by Mark Humphrey/A man walks through the hall outside the House and Senate chambers of the Tennessee Capitol in 2019. This year, the Senate's Republic Caucus is pressuring college and university presidents to ban student athletes' peaceful protests, an action the ACLU and others say would be unconstitutional.

There's clearly just too much testosterone in the water in Nashville where our lawmakers are tying themselves and our state in knots with concerns about civil protests by sports teams, women's birth choice, everyone's gender choice.

Who do these middle-aged to old white guys think they are?

Last week, upset Tennessee Senate Republicans strongly suggested that the heads of state universities and colleges stop student-athletes from kneeling during the national anthem after a mid-February basketball game in Chattanooga.

That protest — kneeling during an anthem — is an increasingly-followed symbol of respecting our country but still calling for police reform in the wake of far too many Black deaths and injuries at the hands of mostly white police officers.

As Rep. Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga, who is Black, noted "all of us need to realize this is 2021. And the pain and frustration of perceived police brutality in law enforcement has to be demonstrated in some way. ... Black Lives Matter," he said. "Own up to what we have allowed to happen over the years."

Hakeem added: "To kneel is not a slap at the national anthem or our flag. ... Families of the same people who are kneeling, both Black and white, have served in our military, have served in government, paid taxes. ... Get over it, and let's move forward."

But the entire all-white, 27-member Senate Republican Caucus, after fuming over the event for days, sent an identical letter to ETSU President Brian Noland, UTC Chancellor Steven Angle and seven other presidents or chancellors.

"To address this issue," the letter states, "we encourage each of you to adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward."

"Prohibit." As in ban players rights — you should think of this as anyone's right — to peacefully use their constitutional right to protest.

These lawmakers are among the same GOP supermajority that also in February pushed along legislation in both the Tennessee's House and Senate that would allow a father to request an injunction to prohibit a woman who is pregnant with his unborn child from obtaining an abortion. How about some legislation that would allow a woman to request courts make her partner reverse or get a vasectomy? What's good for the goose, you know.

And this is the same austere panel of too many men and Republicans who are all frenzied up to pass a bill banning transgender athletes from playing middle and high school sports. They and the governor incorrectly claim transgender athletes will destroy women's sports.

Ha! They severely underestimate women.

What all these so-called leaders are actually doing is being afraid. Afraid of being less important. Afraid of addressing real issues instead of hypothetical ones. Real issues like growing domestic violence, like kids who aren't getting an education at all right now, like the very real police abuses that keep occurring on their watch.

Shortly after sending their letter to college officials, Senate Republicans declined to tell Nashville reporters whether they would consider pulling funding from schools where athletes have taken a knee. And by the way, the University of Tennessee's Lady Vols basketball team also has done so.

It wouldn't be without precedent for Tennessee Republicans to vote to pull funding from a public university program. You may recall that the legislature did that some years ago in denying funding for a diversity office and for explicit sexual education programming at UT.

Of the lawmakers' newest suggestion, the American Civil Liberties Union-Tennessee said: "Freedom of expression does not cease to exist if you walk onto a basketball court – especially if you attend a public university. Your ability to protest peacefully does not disappear because of a scholarship, and your First Amendment rights are certainly not tied to lawmakers' reactions to the content of your speech."

Such banning policies would be unconstitutional, the ACLU said. The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that neither public schools nor legislators can force their definition of patriotism on students by requiring them to participate in compelled speech.

But beyond the question of constitutionality, all Tennesseans should be disgusted that this is what our lawmakers busy themselves with.

"This is embarrassing," David L. Hudson Jr., an assistant law professor at Belmont University in Nashville, told The Washington Post when our state's backwardness made national news once more. "The lawmakers' action is an affront to this fundamental First Amendment freedom."

We agree. And frankly — though we earlier attributed the legislature's behavior to testosterone and an overload of middle-aged and old white guys — this is not just about these folks being middle-aged, old, white or mostly men. They may be fancying themselves as champions of the Constitution and conservatism, but what they are — again — is afraid.

If the conversation is about anyone who is younger, of color, female with a choice, or any gender with the choice about their private lives and health, our state's so-called leaders get afraid. Very afraid.

And unless they can completely zero all of our votes, they should be. Time is on our side.

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