With a 3-1 record the Waggener High School football team is off to its best start in 12 years, but those aren’t the only numbers the Wildcats want people to know about.
They want you to know about the 120 minutes many athletes spend on buses on a daily basis just to get to school and get home from practice. They want you to know about the 10 percent of Jefferson County Public Schools students who are classified as homeless.
So the Wildcats have taken some unorthodox – and controversial – measures to raise awareness about these issues. It started Sept. 9 when junior running back/linebacker Tre Chappell took a knee during the national anthem before the Wildcats’ game against Shawnee. It continued last Friday when the entire team locked arms during the national anthem before the Wildcats offense took a knee on their first play from scrimmage against Atherton, drawing a delay-of-game penalty.
Wildcats coach Jordan Johnson said the team’s movement started with Chappell’s gesture but has evolved into something much more.
“This isn’t going to be a one-time thing where we do something cool and everybody looks at us and then we just forget about it,” Johnson said. “If you do this, we’re going to be under everyone’s scrutiny … and we’re going to have to follow it up and do our part to really make a change, not just say we want to change.”
Chappell has not been allowed to speak with media since his protest. Johnson said he and Chappell have received several threats via social media and email. Chappell’s decision to kneel during the national anthem – which Johnson said was spontaneous and hadn’t been previously discussed – was similar to that of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has been protesting what he says is the oppression of African-Americans and minorities in the United States.
But Johnson said Chappell’s protest was about the challenges that many JCPS students face and that he did not mean any disrespect to police officers or veterans.
“His biggest thing is the social injustices that occur for our guys on a daily basis,” Johnson said. “It’s not any one person’s fault. It’s just the difference in what our kids have to go through versus what you might call a regular kid has to go through. It’s a huge difference. …
“He’s not trying to be anti-America. It’s about anti-racism and all the racism that is occurring. One of their biggest frustrations is that nobody listens. Even since this has happened, we’re getting attacked daily on social media and people calling the school and leaving voicemail and emailing me. Just the hate that is coming out of people proves how bad racism is.”
Johnson knows his football team alone isn’t going to solve homelessness or racism, but several Waggener officials and players say the protests have at least sparked a discussion at the school.
Junior football players Tahj Rice and Jairus Brents have started a Black Student Union at the school, and Johnson said future events will focus on raising money for the organization. Waggener’s football team is 90 percent African-American, and the student population as a whole is 49 percent African-American.
Waggener athletic director Jamie Dumstorf said a St. Matthews police officer is scheduled to meet with the football team to discuss race relations.
“It has sparked a discussion in the school,” Rice said. “There are some new groups being formed, and some teachers are going out and doing things and making groups of students talk about things and show how they want to support Tre. …
“I think it’s important to talk about the history of these issues. History is a big part of what’s still going on today.”
Dumstorf said Chappell is one of several Waggener athletes who live in the downtown Louisville area and take long rides on TARC buses to get to school and to get home after practices. Dumstorf said the school spends about $5,000 annually on TARC passes for athletes and others who participate in after-school activities.
“Those of us who are born into privilege or come from privilege, we just kind of expect that this is the way it is,” Dumstorf said. “I think in Tre’s case, he wanted to rattle that status quo. … For the conversation this has generated, I think it’s caused everybody to take a step back.”
Johnson said the team does not plan to make any kind of gesture during Friday’s game at Central but is planning something for its Sept. 30 game against Bardstown.
Johnson said all future gestures will be made as a team.
“Tre is proud of what he did, and we’re all proud of what he did,” Johnson said. “But he’s also matured and learned that, let’s make a stand but try to do it so more people will listen and join us instead of dividing people.”
Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and firstname.lastname@example.org.