The national anthem protest started by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had one of its first reported incidents in Rochester on Tuesday. All 18 players on the School 58/World of Inquiry boys soccer team chose not to stand during the playing of the anthem before its match at Aquinas Institute.
Instead, they all took a knee — just as Kaepernick first did late last month and every game since — and side by side with their arms around the teammate next to them remained kneeling until the anthem finished. Rochester City School District officials and the team’s coach, Rich Paufler, did not know beforehand that the players were planning to kneel, according to a statement issued Wednesday by RCSD.
“While students have the freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights, we want to ensure that they are making a well-informed decision with the consent of their parents and knowledge of the school staff,” the statement said. “The school will communicate with the parents of team members and use this as a teachable moment for our students.”
Michael Lopez, whose son Miguel plays for World of Inquiry (9-0-1), said he knew players had been talking about kneeling. But for the Griffins, the No. 1 team in the Democrat and Chronicle‘s small-school poll and two-time defending Section V Class C1 champion, it was all or nothing.
“They were all going to do it or none of them would do it,” said Lopez, who is also vice president of the Flower City Soccer League in which many WOI players compete. “I as a parent and as a coach and a mentor to these boys, who I have concern for, will not tolerate any interference (for them) exercising their constitutional rights to protest the violence against the black people in America by police.”
Kaepernick’s silent protest has become a rather loud debate in schools, locker rooms, restaurants and dinner tables across America. The 28-year-old wants to show that people of color are being oppressed. By kneeling, he has said, he is taking a stand against police brutality.
The WOI team is predominately African-American. The Griffins’ next match is 7 p.m. Thursday at Bishop Kearney.
“To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,” Kaepernick initially told NFL.com as the controversy ignited after he first knelt at an Aug. 26 preseason game.
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Now “teachable moment” is a popular phrase in schools when students mimicking Kaepernick’s protest is discussed. High school athletes in several states, including Alabama, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Texas, have knelt or laid down during the anthem. Exercising their right to protest forces coaches, teachers and school administrators into a delicate situation of protecting freedom of speech while making sure it doesn’t create a problem.
“As long as it’s not being disruptive we allow that right,” Brockport athletic director Todd Hagreen said.
As per state education law, public schools can’t make students honor the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. School Law No. 6138 states that students and teachers “can abstain from reciting the pledge or saluting the flag,” at school.
“We can encourage students to stand for the national anthem, but we cannot force them,” said Honeoye Falls-Lima athletic director Brian Donohue.
RCSD also said it would not permit interviews about Tuesday’s kneel-down by World of Inquiry staff or players on the team. Carlos Cotto, the athletic director for the district, said players were given a letter on Wednesday to take home and share with their families.
“We want the boys to make an informed decision, but an individual decision, too, so we want their families to be a part of it,” Cotto said. “We’d like them to talk about it with their parents.”
A half-dozen local athletic administrators interviewed said they were not aware of any incidents or protests at their schools. That doesn’t mean they haven’t talked about how to handle situations. It was a topic at a meeting of athletic directors in the Monroe County Public School Athletic Conference the first week of September. i
There never has been a league-wide policy in place and there isn’t now since the Kaepernick controversy erupted. It’s handled on a school-by-school, case-by-case basis.
“There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this,” said Lesli Myers, the superintendent at Brockport for five years and the superintendent representative on the MCPSAC. “The purpose of school is really to promote thought, right? We have to learn to capitalize on teachable moments and have meaningful conversation. Students need to understand why Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee and we have the responsibility and opportunity to talk with them about why this is happening.”
That’s most important, she said, and included in the discussion should be why so many people feel offended by what they perceive is a lack of respect for the flag, America and those who have served in the military.
“This is about taking a look at this and analyzing the different sides and opinions,” said Myers, a Pittsford native. “It’s certainly not simple. The NFL is grappling.”
Schools have to try to make the best sense of it, too, while putting personal feelings aside.
Greece Olympia athletic director Kim Henshaw’s father was in the Air Force, so while seeing protests “makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up,” she understands it’s someone’s right.
“It also doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have dialogue individually with a player if it happened just so they knew what they’re doing,” said Henshaw, who added she has seen spectators at games remain seated but has not seen any players in her district do so.
In East Rochester, coaches have been encouraged to discuss the issue with players. While athletic director Mark Michele said he supports Kaepernick’s “motivation to speak out on the issue of social injustice,” he thought there were a “a myriad of other creative ways,” to use “his influence and inspired a growth mindset about the issue.”
Fairport athletic director Fritz Kilian said it’s critical to have dialogue with students, if they choose to protest, to find out why they did so.
“We’ll find some students that are thoughtful of the type of statement they want to make, but there are others that will do it just to go along with their friends or they’ll say they saw it on TV,” Kilian said.
Lopez, the parent of the WOI player, said teenagers don’t live in a bubble. “They see on social media what has been happening,” he said, but ultimately added he thought Tuesday’s kneel-down was “uneventful” and certainly caused no disturbance.
WOI won the match, 1-0. Aquinas players, who all stood in a line during the anthem, didn’t even notice their opponents didn’t stand, Aquinas coach Josh Gleason said.
“They came over afterward and I said, ‘Guys, did you see that?’ and they said, ‘No,’ ” Gleason said.
Gleason doesn’t agree with Kaepernick’s method. The anthem is important, he said, and he has conveyed his thoughts to his players over the past four years as their coach. They are supposed to stand and show respect and stay that way until the song ends, right down to the last note. Gleason’s grandfathers served in World War II, his father in Vietnam and his brother was in the Navy for 11 years.
“I have an expectation of how my kids are supposed to act and that’s important to me,” he said. “That’s just how we do it, how we always will and how I hope we do it after I’m gone.”
Includes reporting by staff writer James Johnson