- Since Kaepernick's actions were first reported two months ago, anthem protests have spread across the NFL and into the college ranks.
- Death threats on a Facebook page were made toward a southern Texas youth football team, the Beaumont Bulls, including comments that said “Coaches need to be lynched and fired.”
Oct. 14–Boiling Springs football coach Nate Freier was initially conflicted when he heard the news in August that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was sitting in protest during the national anthem before a preseason game.
The retired lieutenant colonel and associate professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College reveres the country, flag and The Star-Spangled Banner. He's a survivor of the Pentagon terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and he's not the only member of his family to have served the country or in law enforcement.
But he won't call Kaepernick's protest disrespectful or a slight against the military.
“I struggled with it at first on a personal level, but I wasn't ever really angry or offended about what Kaepernick was doing at all,” Freier said.
Mechanicsburg coach Chris Hakel lost his brother, also in the military, at a young age, he said. Standing for the flag holds personal meaning for Hakel, but he said he tries to distance himself “from those emotions” if someone chooses to silently protest.
“If I stand and tell them that they can't do that, then I'm not respecting what the flag stands for,” Hakel said.
The movement spreads
Since Kaepernick's actions were first reported two months ago, anthem protests have spread across the NFL and into the college ranks, women's soccer and basketball games and even the high school level.
The reactions have been polarizing: strong support on one side and calls for coaches to be fired on the other. There has been worse — death threats on a Facebook page were made toward a southern Texas youth football team, the Beaumont Bulls, including comments that said “Kill them all” and “Coaches need to be lynched and fired,” according to The Examiner. A Doherty Memorial High (Massachusetts) junior quarterback was initially suspended by the school, but that punishment was later rescinded, according to The Washington Post.
At present, no protests during the anthem at a sporting event in Cumberland County have been reported. But schools and coaches have been watching the movement spread across the nation.
“I've certainly been following along and talking to people,” Carlisle coach Pat Conrad said.
“It didn't take me long to realize these kinds of things have contagious impacts, especially in this era of social media,” Freier said.
Sports and politics
A banal argument against the movement started by Kaepernick is political stances don't have a place in sports. The two should be separate.
But, American athletics are chock full of political statements. Muhammed Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War when he was drafted; Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the black power salute during the 200 meter sprint medal ceremony in the 1968 Olympics; and then there's Jackie Robinson, a central figure in the equal rights movement when he became the first African American in MLB.
“It's virtually impossible (to keep politics out of sports), especially in situations like this,” Freier said.
Mechanicsburg coach Chris Hakel has given it a lot of thought. He admitted his opinion has oscillated.
“Athletes are role models, right, wrong or indifferent,” he said.
“But I also look at it in a lot of ways as entertainment. … Everybody seems to be (using their platform) now, whether you're a sports star or a TV star or whatever.”
Freier believes the issues Kaepernick is protesting for –social injustice and against police mistreatment of minorities — are “a very important issue.” But Freier, whose love for football noticeably runs deep, intimated that sports are a well-positioned vehicle for such discussions. He believes whole-heartedly in the power of a team and overcoming challenges, on the field and off, together.
“The beauty of athletics is they are the great unifier of communities,” Freier said. “When there's a challenge in those communities, many times it's sports that are at the front end of addressing it. It's sort of the Jackie Robinson example.
“It was bigger than just the first African American baseball player, you know what I'm saying? It was a symbol for where the country needed to go.”
A teachable moment
Racial injustice is not an easy topic to discuss. Kaepernick's protests are yet another example.
His reasons were particularly targeted toward a string of highly publicized incidents involving police killing black civilians.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he said in August.
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Yet a significant portion of the columns, stories, TV segments and social media reactions haven't been about police and racial injustice. Debate has centered more around assumptions Kaepernick held anti-military sentiment (he has not said so) or whether a silent protest — originally Kaepernick sat, but has since knelt — during the national anthem is the “right approach.”
But for high school coaches with young athletes, this could be an opportunity to discuss a topic that has created an uneasy atmosphere throughout the country. It could be a teachable moment at an age when high school athletes are just beginning, at varying speeds, to build their own identity — politically and otherwise.
Freier, during a conversation two weeks ago, said he felt the time was approaching to sit down the team one day and hold a discussion, teach a young group of men.
That moment hasn't come yet, and Freier said this week the players chose to keep that discussion “in house” and declined to comment. Conrad politely declined to allow players to talk for this story.
“I think it's probably time to have a conversation with our kids about it,” Freier said two weeks ago. “It's things I've never shied away from in the locker room.”
Freier said he wanted to “take advantage” of the moment, to teach. He views himself as an educator, even if he doesn't teach the students himself at the high school.
“This gets to the meaning of the game to me,” Freier said. “At its core, what you do is have an adult conversation with young adults on just how important this issue is and how it's affecting the young men and women around this country who feel the impact of it.”
For now, it's largely a waiting game.
The initial gust of coverage has waned to a gentle breeze. Kaepernick is set to start this week for the first time this season, which has ratcheted the coverage some, but spreading protests are increasingly back-page news.
Conrad and Carlisle athletic director George Null have chosen not to discuss with the athletes the reasons for the protest or if anyone on the team is thinking of following suit. Hakel said he hopes a player who is thinking of making some sort of demonstration will come talk with him first.
Boiling Springs is likely to take a proactive approach. Athletic director Pat Dieter said he believed he should talk with his coaches about appropriate responses. Freier, obviously, already has plans to talk with the football team at some point.
Public schools are not allowed to punish a student under the 1943 Supreme Court decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette — the interpretation generally covers student athletes during non-school hours — who protest in a manner that does not hinder students and staff that stand for the flag. School board policies can be found on each school district's website.
“Students may decline to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and may refrain from saluting the flag on the basis of religious conviction or personal belief,” says the 1949 Pennsylvania state legislation.
Each school district in The Sentinel area has exact or similarly worded policies, in accordance with the legislation.
Trinity, when athletic director Gary Bricker was reached via email, did not provide any written rules, and Bricker said it “depends on the situation” if a student were to be punished for protesting.
“Coaches should have a better understanding of what the school expects,” Bricker emailed when asked if students or coaches would face punishment.
“Students in most cases, won't have the life experiences and would often follow a path where they don't have a complete understanding of their actions. In other words we would probably look to make use of the teachable moment. If they feel that strongly on an issue find a positive and constructive way to affect change. I would hope that we would encourage them to discuss their social concerns before acting in way that may offend.”
The coaches and ADs who spoke know the potential outcry. In a conservative area like Cumberland County, it is to be expected. But at least for Freier, he believes the chance to teach is at the heart of the sport he holds so sacred.
“E pluribus unum,” said Freier, citing a phrase on U.S. currency and the Great Seal of the United States. “(Out of many), one. I think that, to me, it epitomizes the game.”
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