Prep play­ers join protests dur­ing na­tional an­them

Stu­dents’ ac­tion against in­jus­tice gar­ners praise and pun­ish­ment across the na­tion.

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Ja­son Jor­dan

In his seven years as a head foot­ball coach, Garfield (Seattle) High School’s Joey Thomas has never be­fore dealt with such a per­plex­ing di­chotomy. On one hand, he’s never been more proud of a group of play­ers. Yet, Thomas said this “eas­ily” has been the most dif­fi­cult year of his coach­ing ca­reer.

Thomas’ team dropped to one knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them all last sea­son to protest so­cial in­jus­tice, one of the first high school teams to do so. This sea­son the Bull­dogs have traded kneel­ing dur­ing the an­them for in­ter­lock­ing arms or rais­ing their fists.

Thomas is adamant that protest­ing “is what the kids wanted to do” and said he’s faced ev­ery­thing from slashed tires to death threats as a re­sult.

“I’ve had to move homes, I’ve had to move my kid from one school to the next,” he said. “I wouldn’t vol­un­tar­ily put my fam­ily in harm’s way. I mean, who does that? But I’ve got to sup­port my guys.”

Sup­port, re­sis­tance, anger, un­der­stand­ing. The de­ci­sion by high school play­ers to stand, or in this case, kneel, for some­thing they be­lieve in elic­its a broad range of emo­tions and re­ac­tions from adults.

For­mer San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick started the side­line protests last sea­son by kneel-

ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them to take a stand against po­lice bru­tal­ity and racial in­jus­tice. This sea­son, ev­ery NFL team has had play­ers fol­low suit, and Pres­i­dent Trump has re­peat­edly ex­pressed his dis­plea­sure with the kneel­ing and what play­ers do dur­ing the an­them.

The peace­ful protests in­evitably trick­led down to high schools, play­ing out across the coun­try this sea­son in var­i­ous forms un­der the gleam of Fri­day Night Lights.

Early in the sea­son, many schools re­sponded in a puni­tive man­ner:

Sept. 28: The Park­way (Bossier City, La.) prin­ci­pal sent a let­ter to ath­letes telling them they are re­quired to “stand in a re­spect­ful man­ner” dur­ing the na­tional an­them or face “loss of play­ing time” or “re­moval from the team.”

Sept. 29: Two play­ers at Vic­tory & Praise Chris­tian Academy (Crosby, Texas) were re­moved from the team after kneel­ing dur­ing the an­them.

Oct. 16: Bel­larmine Col­lege Prep (San Jose) as­sis­tant coach Ja­cob Malae re­signed after a group of play­ers knelt dur­ing the an­them.

Next came back­lash to the dis­ci­pline. After O’Ban­non (Greenville, Miss.) play­ers were sus­pended in­def­i­nitely when they took a knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them Sept. 30, state Sen. Der­rick Sim­mons told The Clar­ion Ledger of Jack­son, Miss., that he was “se­ri­ously ap­palled.”

“I am to­tally out­raged that th­ese stu­dents have been sus­pended for ex­er­cis­ing their right to peace­fully protest their be­liefs and make a state­ment through a ges­ture that has long been prac­ticed in many sports across this coun­try,” Sim­mons said.

Shortly after that scathing cri­tique, the school dis­trict said just one player was sus­pended for some­thing he did dur­ing the na­tional an­them but wouldn’t re­veal what it was.

As the protests be­gan to pro­lif­er­ate across the coun­try, some teams be­gan to ex­er­cise their right to free speech in ways other than kneel­ing.

Bishop Dunne (Dal­las) safety Brian Wil­liams said he, his team­mates and coaches de­cided to in­ter­lock their arms to­gether as the an­them plays be­fore games “to show the unity we hope to have in our coun­try one day.”

“First, it’s an ac­knowl­edg­ment of the in­jus­tices that peo­ple feel,” said Wil­liams, a five-star prospect. “Lock­ing arms is to show that, at the end of the day, the only way to over­come it is to stick to­gether. As an African-Amer­i­can young man, I have a great deal of re­spect for those play­ers that do kneel, be­cause that’s their right.”

Many peo­ple are of­fended by play­ers kneel­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them be­cause they be­lieve it is dis­re­spect­ful to the Amer­i­can flag and mil­i­tary. Those who kneel em­pha­size they are protest­ing racial in­jus­tice and are us­ing the plat­form of the pregame na­tional an­them be­cause it’s a rare oc­ca­sion where they have the un­di­vided at­ten­tion of hun­dreds, even thou­sands, of peo­ple.

On Oct. 27, each mem­ber of the Sachse (Texas) team bolted out of the locker room be­fore their game hold­ing a full-sized Amer­i­can flag.

Sachse coach Mark Behrens said the pa­tri­otic en­trance “wasn’t in re­sponse to the kneel­ing” but rather a show of sup­port for the mil­i­tary.

“We have great re­spect for the mil­i­tary, and this is some­thing that we did last year,” Behrens said. “We’re not try­ing to make a po­lit­i­cal state­ment. We have no is­sues with the kneel­ing.”

That wasn’t the case for a fa­ther and son of­fi­ci­at­ing a high school game in New Jersey last week. The two men walked off the field in protest after mem­bers of one of the teams took a knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them.

As a re­sult, two of­fi­cials in train­ing had to re­place head lines­man Ernie Lu­nardelli and his son An­thony, who face pun­ish­ment rang­ing from a fine to ex­pul­sion from their of­fi­cials or­ga­ni­za­tion.

The protests and re­sponses get the head­lines, ob­scur­ing the fact that many play­ers just want to play foot­ball.

“I’m an African Amer­i­can, and I re­spect the play­ers that do kneel, but it just hasn’t re­ally been some­thing I’ve felt strongly about,” five-star Pace Academy (At­lanta) of­fen­sive guard Ja­ma­ree Sa­lyer said of the protests.

Coaches are also ed­u­ca­tors, and many, in­clud­ing Ja­son Bat­tle of Rocky Mount (N.C.), want their play­ers to be in­formed be­fore de­cid­ing whether to protest so “they aren’t just fol­low­ing a trend.”

“We have about seven play­ers who have cho­sen to protest peace­fully, and I com­pletely re­spect their right to do so,” Bat­tle said. “I have a Mus­lim player who steps out be­fore games when we re­cite the Lord’s Prayer be­cause that’s not what he be­lieves in. I re­spect that too. The con­cept is sim­i­lar. My kids just stay in the locker room for the na­tional an­them. I have no prob­lem with the protest.”

Turn­ing the protest into a teach­able mo­ment is also the route Lansing (Mich.) Catholic took after sev­eral play­ers took a knee dur­ing the na­tional an­them. The school started a di­ver­sity group to “cre­ate a safe space for stu­dents to talk about is­sues of race and eth­nic­ity and build bridges of unity and re­spect.”

Seattle Pub­lic Schools cer­tainly took an en­light­ened ap­proach to last sea­son’s peace­ful demon­stra­tion by Garfield, re­leas­ing this state­ment: “Stu­dents kneel­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them are ex­press­ing their rights pro­tected by the First Amend­ment. Seattle Pub­lic Schools sup­ports all stu­dents’ right to free speech.”

The Garfield play­ers delved fur­ther into the na­tional an­them, read­ing the sel­dom-re­cited third verse of Fran­cis Scott Key’s song:

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the ter­ror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”

The pop­u­lar be­lief is that Key is re­fer­ring to slaves who fought for the Bri­tish dur­ing the War of 1812.

“I didn’t know about that third verse, but once we read it we were all pretty up­set,” Garfield wide re­ceiver Mekhi Met­calf said. “As an African Amer­i­can, I al­ready didn’t feel like the song was for me, but that verse just tied into the op­pres­sion we’re all protest­ing.”

Line­backer Sam Treat joined the Garfield team this sea­son but had read about the team kneel­ing dur­ing the na­tional an­them be­fore he got to the school.

Treat, who is white, said he “didn’t fully get why the team or even Kaeper­nick kneeled,” but once he par­tic­i­pated with his team­mates in read­ing and re­search­ing the in­jus­tices they face as African Amer­i­cans, “protest­ing be­came a no-brainer.”

“It’s so ob­vi­ous for any­one that takes the time to no­tice,” Treat said. “There is a real prob­lem with dis­crim­i­na­tion against mi­nori­ties. I be­came one of the most adamant play­ers on the team about protest­ing. It’s real life.”

Garfield is mak­ing a dif­fer­ence. Be­fore a game this sea­son, the coach from Arch­bishop Mur­phy (Everett, Wash.) reached out to Thomas and sug­gested both teams line up at mid­field in al­ter­nat­ing fash­ion and in­ter­lock hands dur­ing the na­tional an­them.

The Garfield play­ers also pe­ti­tioned the Seattle school board to make sev­eral changes, in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing equal ac­cess to spe­cial­ized school pro­grams and equal ac­cess to AP classes be­gin­ning at a younger age.

The play­ers met with the board re­cently and “are ac­tu­ally start­ing to see re­sults,” ac­cord­ing to Thomas.

Met­calf said that see­ing a pos­i­tive re­sponse from the board is en­cour­ag­ing for him and his team­mates.

“Just to see that you can make things change by stand­ing up for what you be­lieve in feels great,” he said.

JIM GENSHEIMER/ BAY AREA NEWS GROUP

/JIM GENSHEIMER, BAY AREA NEWS GROUP

A small group of Bel­larmine foot­ball play­ers kneels for the na­tional an­them be­fore the team’s game against Ju­nipero Serra in San Jose. High school play­ers have re­ceived mixed re­ac­tion to protests.

The Mount Carmel Area High School team holds U.S. flags as the na­tional an­them is played be­fore a foot­ball game in Mount Carmel, Pa.

LARRY DEKLINSKI/AP

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