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Ohio High School Athletes Avoid Unwanted Spotlight

The "taking a knee" protest movement is becoming more popular in the NFL. (Keith Allison/Flickr)
The "taking a knee" protest movement is becoming more popular in the NFL. (Keith Allison/Flickr)
October 20, 2017

By Scott Lendak, Kent State-Ohio News Connection

Every Friday night during the football season the lights are bright and emotions are high for Keyshawn Colman. The Boardman High School wide receiver prepares to play in front of hundreds of his peers.

His head is in the game, but his heart is somewhere else. As the marching band plays the national anthem, Colman looks at the flag and thinks of the troops who fought for his country.

Despite the recent movement to kneel, Colman has no internal conflict with himself. He doesn’t even consider kneeling.

“I think they kneel because they’re trying to protest what happens around the country that deals with racism,” Colman said. “I feel like it’s bad but I don’t think they should go as far as kneeling. That kneel represents all the people that fight for our country.”

Colman, along with other high school athletes, understand the issues surrounding social injustices. Acting on them on the field is a different story.

The popular movement started in the National Football League over a year ago when quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn’t stand during the national anthem.

He started to kneel before San Francisco’s first preseason game in 2016. From the end of the 2015 season to the beginning of the 2016 season, he had enough of the social injustice and decided it was time to take a stand.

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

More than 30 NFL players took a knee or raised a fist in the 2017 preseason.

“I feel like he could do something else about that instead of just kneeling during the national anthem,” Colman said. “He knows the cameras are on during the national anthem. He’s just doing that… I guess it’s invoking conversation, but it’s not the conversation that will change anything.”

Boardman is part of a high school football hotspot in the Youngstown area. The players on the Boardman High School football team, along with the majority of other high school players, don’t kneel during the national anthem.

“As a white kid, I understand why people kneel,” Boardman defensive end Steven Amstutz said. “I don’t kneel because I haven’t been through the same situations as my African American teammates. If one of my teammates took a knee I would support them, but having family in the military forces, I don’t think I’d be able to kneel with him. I’d support them in a different way.”

Professional players have used their platforms to raise conversation despite any backlash they may receive. It is becoming more popular in the NFL, but the same can’t be said for high school football players around the country.

“NFL players have a lot more free reign over there,” Uniontown Lake quarterback Ryan Dadich said. “We play for a school and a coach. I think if one person kneeled it wouldn’t look good on that school.”

Former Poland High School running back Marlon Ramirez said that the NFL players’ actions are admirable, and it seems to him that they resonate well with the African American community.

“Personally, I would at least think about taking a knee if I still played high school football,” Ramirez said. “I’m not sure as to whether or not I would follow through with it because I think there are better ways to go about it as a high school student, but I am in full support of the NFL players that do it. They have a much larger platform to bring attention to the issue.”

There are sporadic outliers and few instances where high school players do kneel, but the question remains why the overwhelming majority of them hesitate to take action.

Victory Praise and Worship Center and the Catholic Diocese of Camden, New Jersey are both parochial schools with high school football, but that’s not the only thing they have in common. They both have punished their students for taking a knee.

Victory Praise and Worship Center in Crosby, Texas, kicked two athletes off the team directly after the national anthem, while the Catholic Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, suspended students who chose to kneel.

“We are not public institutions and free speech in all of its demonstrations, including protests, is not a guaranteed right,” Mary Boyle, superintendent of the Catholic Diocese of Camden, New Jersey wrote in a statement regarding the issue.

Ursuline High School is a parochial school in the Youngstown area, but defensive coach Matt Guarnieri said that he would support his players if they took a knee despite any lack of freedom of expression the student may have.

“If one of my guys took a knee I would definitely support them,” Guarnieri said. “I wouldn’t force anyone else to show support or kneel with them, but I would definitely show support by standing next to them and putting a hand on their shoulder. I applaud the NFL players who take a knee to raise attention to the problems.”

Boardman is a public school however, and public schools typically have more freedom of speech than private schools. Despite this, the Boardman high school players feel like they would still get into trouble.

“The administration would get you if you did something like that,” Amstutz said. “Even if you didn’t get in trouble, a target would be on your back. People would form negative opinions about you.”

As if the protests weren’t invoking enough conversation on the national level, President Donald Trump felt the need to show his disapproval toward the NFL on Twitter.

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” Trump said in a tweet.

This only sparked NFL players to participate more than ever.

Players who didn’t participate when Kaepernick started the protesting began to kneel and link arms to unify to stand up against Trump’s message.

“When President Trump harshly criticized players for kneeling on Twitter and during a campaign rally, many more NFL players joined in on an act of solidarity,” said Daniel P. Hawes, a Kent State University political science associate professor. “The protests turned into a combination of taking a knee and locking arms to show unity. I don’t think we would see the entire football team locking arms or the Dallas Cowboys taking a knee prior to the anthem if Trump did not attack NFL players who were protesting.”

High school students interpret the same tweets, yet the movement hasn’t sparked in high schools the same way it has in the NFL.

But the answer doesn’t lie in the competency of the players. They typically understand the reasons for the protesting, but a lot of them just feel it is unnecessary for different reasons.

“I think players in the NFL kneel for two reasons,” Amstutz said. “I think a lot of them do it for attention because the media makes it a big deal about it now. Part of it I do think is for a good cause for the Black Lives Matter community. It’s a little bit of both for me.”

A common argument against kneeling for the national anthem is that it may be disrespectful to the military forces who have fought for the freedom of Americans.

“If my teammates tried to kneel during the national anthem, I would tell them there’s another way to fight against those issues,” Colman said. “I would never take a knee because I think it disrespects the people who served our country.”

A counterargument would say that kneeling isn’t disrespecting the military, but it is conversely exercising the freedom of expression right that the military fought to preserve.

“I think there is a lot of misunderstanding happening,” Hawes said. “The national anthem is simply the platform they are using to draw attention about the issues to which they are protesting. Unfortunately, the debate has now become about whether people should stand during the national anthem rather than what the protests are actually about.”

This is a collaboration between Kent State, Ohio News Connection, Public News Service funded in part by Media in the Public Interest and the George Gund Foundation.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - OH