September 16, 2016
Through the decades, things have always tended to trickle down from the National Football League to the high school level – everything from advanced equipment, to the way players hydrate, to the medical attention they now receive.
Even strategy has translated from the NFL onto high school fields across the country, including the “victory formation,” something that has a strong Philadelphia connection after the Eagles’ Herman Edwards scooped up a fumble by New York Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik in the waning seconds of a game in 1978.
Soon after, quarterbacks on winning teams — high school, college and pro — were “taking a knee” to ice games.
Now it appears an NFL quarterback “taking a knee” carries new meaning. And once again, it’s an act that has obviously filtered down to the high school level, after San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to “take a knee” during the national anthem before games in protest, he said, of perceived social injustice directed by police toward African-Americans.
Last weekend, when coaches and players from Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, New Jersey, knelt during the national anthem before a game, it touched the grass roots level, stirring a controversy that’s coursed throughout the country and gone viral via social media.
It’s a choice, it seems, that’s cut along racial lines and socio-economic demographics.
The demonstration is a way for high school student-athletes to express themselves, and it’s caused school administrators and football coaches around the Delaware Valley to scurry about in figuring out what to do and what, if any, policy needs to be set during the playing of the national anthem.
For this story, 28 schools were contacted, 15 in the Philadelphia area and 13 in South Jersey. The dialogue was supposed to be about freedom of expression, respect for the American flag and the national anthem, and how will schools and coaches deal with the situation if their players decided to kneel during the national anthem. Talk of freedom of expression gradually became more like a call to run and hide. Of the 28 schools contacted, 17 school administrators and/or coaches responded, many of whom said that they couldn’t respond openly out of fear a superior would come down on them.
Some school officials and coaches, however, did offer clarity about an issue that appears to have spread like wildfire.
The Camden City School District came out in favor of Woodrow Wilson coach Preston Brown, who told his players he would kneel during the playing of the national anthem before the Tigers’ game against visiting Highland last Saturday. Brown’s players followed his lead and all but two knelt along with him. In a prepared statement from Brown, issued by the Camden City School District, he said: “I grew up in poverty, a lot of these kids are growing up in poverty. There’s a lot of social injustices and economic disparities. There's issues right here in our own community.”
Through the Camden City School District, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said: “This wasn’t some hate-filled, rock-throwing rally. This was a respectful demonstration. To me, kneeling is very different than turning your back to the flag. Ultimately, these players and the coach were bringing to light the issues of social injustice. Again, to knee is to genuflect, something we do in church and it’s something I did when I proposed to my wife. We’re proud of our coaches and players for respectfully advancing this very important dialogue.
“This dialogue is in many respects focused on the conditions here in Camden. It is a city grappling with enormous challenges rooted in poverty, which are borne out of institutional racism. In the minds of our coaches and our players, and certainly my experiences, this is a huge, huge challenge to our city. They’re bringing to light the fact that more than half the kids in Camden live in poverty. There is an injustice in the fact that I’ve been the superintendent, and over the last three years alone I’ve attended seven student funerals. This is a conversation that’s broad in its nature, not just about policing, but about education. It’s about housing and about jobs.”
If anything, Rouhanifard said, the act has created more dialogue within the Camden community.
Camden High School football coach Dwayne Savage says there is no school policy when it comes to the national anthem. Savage also noted that he’s from a military family, and if his kids opted to kneel during the national anthem, he would like them to let him know first.
“I have no problem with my kids kneeling, but they have to give me a reason why, not because it’s just some fad,” Savage said. “The national anthem and the flag does mean something to me, but in the same instance, I do understand what some people’s views are. I have to have an open mind where some of my kids are coming from. If they want to take a knee, they have to give me a good reason for it. We actually haven’t discussed it at all. The media may have made more out of this than it should be.”
Savage notes that many teams haven’t even discussed the issue.
“We haven’t,” said Gabe Infante, St. Joseph Prep’s highly successful coach who’s won two 4A Pennsylvania state championships, and whose team will be featured on national TV Friday night against Philadelphia Catholic League rival Archbishop Wood. “One of the things we talk about at Prep is the commitment to social justice. We want our kids to be men for others and to be committed to social justice. How that takes form inside of their heart, that’s on them. We want them to be responsible for their actions and to use their gifts to help those less fortunate.
“Personally, I totally respect the opinion and the people who want to make a statement. What I don’t understand is how you separate the respect for the national anthem and those who have paid the price to have that freedom to take a knee—at the same time make a statement about what you disagree with. Is this the right venue to make that statement? How do you show those people respect that give you the right to do that? I don’t have the answer.
“I would totally welcome the opportunity for my kids to discuss it with me. I’m all in favor of my kids expressing themselves. I have always given my players the right to express themselves. What I want is the opportunity to talk to them as to how they’re expressing themselves so they think everything out.”
Prep is a racially mixed team, much of that due to Infante, whose parents barely escaped from Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Raised in squalor in North Jersey, his parents each worked 80 hours a week so he could attend college, and eventually get a law degree. He quit a lucrative profession to coach at Prep.
“To me, the national anthem has two significant meanings: It’s why my family fought so hard to get here so I could have the opportunity to do the things that I have done,” he said. “It’s a homage to my parents who made the sacrifice. To me, the national anthem represents freedom, and how fortunate I am personally for a country that’s given me the opportunity that I have. I can also look at it in the opposite way, because the largest minority in this country is the Hispanic community, and we can easily make the argument how we’ve been oppressed. To me, that’s not what the national anthem is about. To me, it represents freedom and respect to those that have given their lives for us.”
At Imhotep Charter, the defending 3A Pennsylvania state champions and a predominantly African-American team, Panthers coach Mark Schmidt also said the national anthem issue hasn’t been discussed with his team. Schmidt said that the coaching staff discussed it among themselves. But it hasn’t been a point of conversation with the players.
“We already have a special tradition here before and after every game where we do an affirmation, so we lock arms and we’ll continue to do that until it’s time to play,” Schmidt said. “None of the kids have approached me about anything, even though they could if they wanted. We want everyone on the same page and in agreement. I respect everyone’s interest in this. I deal with a bunch of young men that are terrific. It’s simple for us: We want to play football and we don’t want any distractions.”
Diocese of Camden school superintendent Mary P. Boyle sent an email to administrators on Sept. 2 that read:
In light of the recent controversy regarding the NFL player’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem, I seek to clarify the position of the Office of Catholic Schools. I ask that this be communicated to those listed above.
Our schools are founded on the teaching of respect and honor; respect and honor for God, country and duly appointed authority
It is expected that our administration and coaches as well as our athletes will show respect during prayer, pledges and the playing or singing of the National Anthem.
The best approach is helping our young people understand that blood was sacrificed so that we all can enjoy the gifts of our faith and our country.
However, let me be clear. We are not public institutions and free speech in all of its demonstrations, including protests, is not a guaranteed right.
Failure to demonstrate appropriate respect will result in suspension from play (2 games) or dismissal from the team for subsequent offenses.
None of the Camden Diocese schools — Camden Catholic, Pope Paul VI, Gloucester Catholic, St. Joseph, Wildwood Catholic and Holy Spirit — responded to interview requests.
The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, through Ken Gavin, director of communications, issued this: “The Archdiocese has not issued any policy like the one that the Diocese of Camden put forward about the national anthem and school sporting events. We’ve not had any issues arise in Archdiocesan schools regarding this matter.”
“No one has discussed it at almost every school, yet the [Archdiocese of Philadelphia] doesn’t really want anyone to talk about it, either,” said one prominent Philadelphia Diocesan official who asked that his name not be used. “You have a lot of people looking over their shoulders afraid to talk about freedom of expression, including me [laughs]. Everyone respects the flag and the national anthem, as they should for those who have died for this country. But this is a parochial establishment, and we are allowed to tell our student-athletes what they’re allowed and not allowed to do. Believe me, I don’t think it would be tolerated if a Catholic League coach or player knelt during the national anthem. I do think there needs to be a policy on this.”
Rouhanifard feels that this pre-game sideline “victory formation” will ultimately make stronger bonds.
“We support our students and we appreciate the fact that they’re being respectful in wanting to raise this very important issue,” he said. “This is a really formative time for young people, and that’s why we really wanted to support them. They’re young adults ultimately and many of those players are 18-years old, so they’re allowed to give their lives for their country. This is a time we should be supportive and facilitate the dialogue with responsibility and clarity of thought and not skew it and present bias.
“This is a very important time for our young people and the students have spurred this dialogue. I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon. My sincere hope is that we come out the other end a better school system, a better city and a better country."