Football

Four Cincinnati football players raise fists during anthem, say opponents used racial slurs

Da’Shawn Gibson, a backup defensive player on the Withrow High School football team, comes from a law enforcement family. His mother, Shawnda Stone, is an 11-year veteran of the Cincinnati Police Department.

Yet Da’Shawn, a sophomore, says he is troubled by the string of police shootings nationwide of unarmed black men. He joined three African-American Withrow teammates in a silent protest during the playing of the national anthem before their game Friday at Loveland High School. They raised their right fists in protest of racial injustice and police brutality; they plan to make another peaceful protest before their game Friday night at Anderson High School.

“My activism doesn’t need to wait until I am 24 of 25,” said Da’Shawn, 16. “The point I am trying to make is that we are all the same. We just don’t have the same complexion.”

The four Withrow players say more teammates – the roster consists entirely of black players – are prepared to join the protest at Anderson. The four say they are more committed to making a statement after seeing video of the police shooting death of black motorist Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Friday night, roughly at the same time the Withrow team was playing at Loveland.

The Withrow football players’ protest is another expression of the burgeoning movement started in August by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The former Super Bowl quarterback sat during the anthem during the 49ers first two exhibition games before his protest before the third preseason game Aug. 26 gained national attention. He later modified his protest from sitting on the bench to taking a knee.

The protests may be spreading to other levels of football. Last Friday, when the four Withrow players raised their fist, the entire Garfield High School football in Seattle, Washington, took a knee during the anthem before its game.

Watching the shooting death of Crutcher in Oklahoma has shaken the Withrow players but stirred their resolve.

“We all watched it and talked about it,” Da’Shawn said after practice Tuesday night at the Hyde Park high school. “It gets to me. I have a future. I am not going to let something stop me from achieving my dream.”

He wants to be a Secret Service agent. His mother supports Da’Shawn’s decision to protest.

“He has been around police since he was 5 years old,” said Stone, a detective in the Criminal Investigations unit. “He knows all police aren’t bad. I asked him about what he did, and he said he felt good about it. He’s not a little boy now. He has the right to express himself.”

MORE: Florida district says students need parental permission to kneel

Withrow interim coach Zack Davis, promoted after the team’s first game, declined comment about the protest. The players say Davis asked them to lower their fist during the anthem. They said they respect Davis and that he respects them and that he only wanted to avoid additional turmoil in the Withrow football program. Former head coach Ryan Drake was fired for insubordination following the team’s first game for playing two athletes whom he had been told were ineligible.

Withrow is a Cincinnati Public school of about 1,300 students in grades 7 through 12. About 97 percent of students are African-American, about 2 percent are immigrants primarily from African nations, and the remaining number – fewer than 10 – are white. Withrow competes in football as a member of the eight-team Eastern Cincinnati Conference. It is made up primarily of larger, predominantly white suburban schools such as Loveland, Anderson, Kings and Turpin. Walnut Hills is the only other Cincinnati Public Schools team in the league.

The four Withrow players say they thought carefully about raising their fist or kneeling during the anthem. Then they talked about it before acting.

MORE: Coaches take knees behind stands after principal threatens to cancel game

The other three players who protested are junior kicker-wide receiver Pape Coundoul, 17; sophomore starting varsity quarterback Dajon Walker, 16; and his younger brother, freshman backup linebacker-running back Jajuan Walker, 14. Like Da’Shawn’s mother, their parents gave them permission to speak with an Enquirer reporter.

Pape’s Senegal-born father said he did not agree with his son’s opinion about police brutality but respected his son’s right to make a peaceful, public statement.

Pape was born in New York and has dual citizenship in his parents’ homeland, where he lived as a child. His teammates also have multi-national families. The Walkers’ mother is of Mexican ancestry. One of DaShawn’s grandfathers is Asian.

Instead of raising a fist  – the Black Power salute – they are now considering taking a knee.

“If we kneel, we will be sticking up for all oppressed people, not just African-Americans,” Pape said.

Yet the black American experience is singular, they say.

The players have been called the N-word by white people outside of sports. The Walkers said they were selling candy for a school fundraiser in their former California hometown when a white woman chased them off, saying, “You n—— need to get out of here.”

“I was 12,” Dajon said. “The lady told me to get a job. I walked away. You learn to try to walk away.”

Quarterback Dajon Walker talks about discrimination he's faced in Cincinnati and where his family used to live in California. (Photo: Sam Greene, Cincinnati Enquirer)

Quarterback Dajon Walker talks about discrimination he’s faced in Cincinnati and where his family used to live in California. (Photo: Sam Greene, Cincinnati Enquirer)

The Withrow players said a few of the Loveland players used the racial slur during the game. Most, they said, displayed good sportsmanship.

Loveland Athletic Department officials deny that any of its players used racial slurs during the varsity game.

Dajon Walker said a Loveland defender made a hard, clean hit on him. As they both got up from the ground, Walker said the Loveland player told him, “Keep your fist down, n—–.”

In the junior-varsity game against Loveland on Saturday at Withrow, Jajuan said he was called the N-word four times by the same Loveland player before retaliating in the fourth quarter and being penalized for a personal foul.

“I slammed him out of bounds after the play,” Jajuan said. “You usually can brush it off and ignore it. I snapped. I shouldn’t have.”

Contacted Wednesday by The Enquirer about the allegations, Juliann Renner, Loveland City Schools director of student athletics, responded with an email: “We care for all students. Loveland students, Withrow students – all of them, and as coaches and educators, we are tasked with the great responsibility to ensure they are both respected and taught to respect,” she wrote.

“We take any and all allegations very, very seriously. Our student-athletes are expected to be respectful at all times, and if they are found in violation there are consequences for that behavior.”

In a phone conversation later Wednesday, Renner said she received a phone call following the junior-varsity game from Withrow Athletic Director Bandon Franke about the two personal fouls called on Withrow players. The players said the penalties were in response to use of the N-word.

Renner said she and Loveland football coaches investigated the allegations about the junior-varsity game on Saturday, Monday and Tuesday and determined no “wrongdoing by any Loveland football players.” She said Franke was satisfied with the results and considered the incident closed.

Renner said the two schools participated in a student council exchange  Tuesday before the game, when a Withrow contingent spent the day at Loveland, attending classes and eating lunch with their Loveland counterparts. On Friday, during a weather delay caused by lightning, both teams waited on opposite sides of the same gym without incident. In another gym, she said, Withrow and Loveland students participated together in dance and hot dog-eating contests and enjoyed a community event before the game started.

Renner said no complaints were received from Withrow coaches or administrators about any alleged misconduct during the varsity game Friday night.

Jamison Walker Sr. attended the varsity game Friday night but was not at Withrow for the junior-varsity game. Told by his sons about the use of the racial slur, he said, “I was so disturbed I almost stopped my sons from playing. I am not an outspoken person. But I respect my sons’ decision to protest peacefully. It’s a positive response.”

Of the four players who spoke with The Enquirer, Da’Shawn is most impassioned.

“As a young black man in America, it’s kind of hard,” he said. “You get instantly judged as a criminal or someone who is not right in the mind. God put us all here as equals. The only thing that’s different is our skin color. Growing up, it’s crazy seeing these police killings. It makes me sad. But it inspires me more to do something about it.”

For more on this story, visit Cincinnati.com

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