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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 kneeling 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.
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