To commemorate the end of 2017, the staff of USA TODAY High School Sports debated the dominant storylines of 2017 to determine the five most important and resonant of the year.
NO. 4: PROTESTS DURING NATIONAL ANTHEM HIT HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
If you care about football, the topic was unescapable. Beginning in the NFL preseason, a number of players decided to take a knee either during or before the playing of the national anthem to protest racial inequality. The moves drew extraordinarily vocal criticism from President Donald Trump, the ire of many NFL fans and general support from others.
It also inspired copycat actions at lower levels across the nation, particularly in high school football.
In Seattle, the Garfield football team has been protesting during the national anthem for more than a year, yet the school’s coach, Joey Thomas, said the criticism he received this year was so aggressive that he had to take drastic steps to safeguard his family and players.
“I’ve had to move homes, I’ve had to move my kid from one school to the next,” Thomas told USA TODAY High School Sports in October. “I wouldn’t voluntarily put my family in harm’s way. I mean, who does that? But I’ve got to support my guys.”
Even more than in the NFL, the response to high school players taking a stand ran the gamut. In Texas, two players at Victory & Praise Christian Academy were kicked off the team by their coach for kneeling during the anthem. A California assistant coach resigned when some of his players decided to take a knee. A principal in Louisiana even demanded his student athletes, “stand in respect” during the anthem or risk losing playing time or removal from the team.
That institutional backlash didn’t stop players from protesting, from Seattle to Texas to Massachusetts. And while two game officials expressed their disappointment in ways similar to some of the school administrators and coaches, plenty of others in positions of power came forward in support of the student athletes.
“I am totally outraged that these students have been suspended for exercising their right to peacefully protest their beliefs and make a statement through a gesture that has long been practiced in many sports across this country,” Mississippi state Senator Derrick Simmons told The Jackson (Miss.) Clarion Ledger after a group of O’Bannon players was suspended for kneeling during the anthem.
No matter where athletes and coaches came down on the issue, it remained just as deeply divisive an issue as it was in the NFL, if perhaps even more enduring.
“Just to see that you can make things change by standing up for what you believe in feels great,” Garfield wide receiver Mekhi Metcalf told USA TODAY High School Sports. “We’re gonna see it through for the students that come after us. It gives me hope about the national anthem too. One day we hope we get to the point where everyone can have pride in the song.”