- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 17, 2017

KENNESAW, Ga. (AP) - The student who wears the owl mascot costume at a Georgia public university where five cheerleaders knelt during the national anthem had no business leading a cross-campus march in support of the cheerleaders, an influential lawmaker said.

Kenneth Sturkey, who dresses as Scrappy the Owl at Kennesaw State University athletic events, said he donned the costume without permission for Monday’s rally on behalf of cheerleaders who knelt at a game Sept. 30 to protest racial inequality.

“I figured it might help some people step outside their comfort zone knowing there’s an icon behind them,” Sturkey told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution . “If standing up to injustice and inequality is something that’s going to upset the athletic department, which I can totally understand regarding the suit … and that may cost me my job, then that’s perfectly fine.”

Republican state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, who chairs a Georgia House subcommittee in charge of funding the state’s public universities, objected to the mascot’s appearance at the rally in the Atlanta suburb of Kennesaw. He said Monday a taxpayer-funded mascot should not have been used - unless any group can solicit the mascot’s services for protests.

Attending Monday’s rally backing the so-called Kennesaw Five as a student would be acceptable, “but with respect to utilizing the school’s mascot, that’s inappropriate,” Ehrhart told The Marietta Daily Journal .

During Monday’s rally, television reporters held microphones in front of Sturkey’s giant owl head as he spoke about his support for the cheerleaders, video from WXIA-TV showed.

Any group can request that Scrappy attend their off-campus event, which costs $75 per hour, according to Kennesaw State’s official athletic department website.

No official request to participate in the rally was made and the athletic department did not provide approval for the mascot’s participation, Kennesaw State spokeswoman Tammy DeMel said in a statement Monday.

“Officials with KSU’s Department of Athletics and University administrators are reviewing the situation to determine whether action may be warranted,” it said.

The five Kennesaw State University cheerleaders who knelt Sept. 30 said they would again kneel when the anthem is played at Saturday’s homecoming football game. This time, though, they are being moved off -field into a stadium tunnel during pre-game ceremonies where they won’t be seen by fans.

The cheerleaders said they closely watched national debate over NFL players kneeling during the anthem, before adopting that form of protest. The NFL has been embroiled in controversy over players using the anthem before games to protest against racial inequality and police brutality, protests that have spread at times outside the NFL to college and high school athletic venues. President Donald Trump and others have lashed out at NFL players for not standing during the anthem.

Kennesaw State has said the cheerleaders were being moved into the stadium tunnel before kickoff as part of wider steps to improve the fans’ game experience. The decision was made by the school’s athletic department, which meets after each game “to determine how best to enhance the game day atmosphere,” DeMel said in a recent statement. It made no mention of the anthem protest.

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