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Anthem debate: Local athletes, schools walk a fine line

A photograph of the silent action of one 15-year-old cheerleader in York County set off a firestorm reaction on social media earlier this month.

Dressed in her Northeastern cheerleading outfit, bow in her hair, Ajani Powell knelt on one knee during the national anthem before a Northeastern boys’ basketball game.

She knelt in response to injustices she saw throughout the country.

READ: Northeastern cheerleader stands by decision to kneel.

READ: School district responds to photo of cheerleader kneeling.

The junior varsity cheerleader had done the same throughout football season, but when she filled in for a varsity cheerleader during a basketball tip-off tournament game earlier this month, a photo of her kneeling during the anthem surfaced on social media.

A story about Powell’s protest led to hundreds of comments on Facebook, many of which voiced strong opinions. Powell received threatening messages, she said.

The reaction of the public highlighted the difficulties facing high school students and administrators concerning anthem protests in team sports.

It’s not just a question of individual expression. It’s not just a question of racial injustice. It’s not just a question of national pride. It’s not just a question of putting the team first. Anthem protests touch on all those issues.

Unlike similar protests by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other professional athletes, high school student-athletes are not celebrities with years of experience and the tools or staff in place to talk about the topic. An anthem protest by a student-athlete also raises safety concerns when a sophomore is threatened for her beliefs.

“As a parent myself, I’m going to protect our children,” said West York athletic director Frank Hawkins, who is a Navy veteran. “I want them to be individuals and not to be scared to take a stand, because there are going to be times when they will need to take a stand. I want kids to know taking a stand is not something to be scared of.

“This young lady figured she could kneel alone. That takes more than guts.”


Students' choice

Hanover High School senior Theo Johnson expected to kneel during the national anthem before a September football game.

He planned to do so in response to what he viewed as the mistreatment of African Americans, and he tweeted about his decision two days before his first game with the Nighthawks.

Then he changed his mind.

“I just don’t want it to jeopardize anything that I’m doing on the field,” he told in September. “It’s just a really thin line, wondering if I should speak up for the greater good, or should I just think about trying to go out there and play and maybe try to go somewhere for college?”

He was not alone.

York Country Day senior Jordan Ray was one of the best receivers in the York-Adams league this season, playing for York County Tech. During a practice in the fall, he suggested protesting during the national anthem before a game.

“I believe there is a lot of racial injustice in this country,” Ray said.

Teammates agreed to follow his lead.

“Every last one was behind me,” Ray said.

But after he listened to the opinion of coaches, he opted not to kneel or raise a fist during the national anthem.

“It was up to me, but I thought it was better that I did not do it,” Ray said.

A multi-sport star, he doubts he will protest during a York Country Day basketball game this season, even though he said he still is bothered by racial injustices.

“It’s not the right platform,” Ray said. “It doesn’t change anything. What are you doing? You’re putting a target on your back and the backs of your teammates. After considering it, I felt it was selfish to put myself and teammates at stake.”

School reaction

Powell continued to kneel during the anthem this week. After cheering during a junior varsity game Tuesday at Red Lion, she donned Northeastern warmup gear and knelt during the national anthem before the varsity game. 

Northeastern released a statement about the protest. 

After Ray voiced his approval for a protest, York County Tech played the national anthem at football games before players took the field.

“That's an administration thing, and a lot of schools are doing it to avoid the problems,” York County Tech head coach Charlie Troxell said during the season. “[It] depends on how you want to interpret the Constitution and the Supreme Court, how far kids’ rights go. Kids’ rights in a school can be somewhat limited because they are in a school."

Barring a student-athlete from protesting during the national anthem could be difficult, considering certain religions preach against flag celebrations.

“The basic rule is that the school can only prohibit conduct if it negatively affects the school’s ability to educate,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “The coaches might make suggestions, but I don’t think the school administration can make any rule that restricts them from sitting out the anthem.”

Coaches used discussions on protests as teaching moments.

“I made the statement that it might not be the best mechanism to make a political statement,” Reichart said. “Friday night football is not a big enough venue to voice this concern. ... One player asked me what would happen if one of them kneeled, and I just said that I do not feel that exercising one’s right to do that would be in the right venue.

“Adolescents have a lot of thought and creativity,” Reichart continued. “I don’t want the issue to be trivialized. I’m interested and am here to discuss it with them. The biggest takeaway is that they should make their own decision, not just emulate what others do on television.”

Building individuals, not robots

Schools must balance individual expression with putting the team first.

“If any kid ends up kneeling or something, they have every right to do it, and I respect that right as long as it doesn’t become a distraction for my team,” Central York football coach Josh Oswalt said during football season.

The proactive work of the coaching staff is key, said West York's Hawkins. It can turn an individual expression into a team expression. 

“As a coach, it’s all about how you introduce it to your team and notify them how it’s going to be perceived by the team,” Hawkins said. "You can have your own spin on it, so it’s on the coach to talk to their players.”

Even in after-school athletics, some coaches say education should be the No. 1 concern.

"You want the kids to think about their society. That’s good,” South Western football coach Damian Poalucci said during the season. “You want them thinking and not just accepting everything they’re told. That’s what we do with football, and it’s part of growing up.”

As a Navy veteran, Hawkins said he has his own opinion about anthem protests, and he wants students to develop their own opinions, too.

“We don’t want robots,” Hawkins said.

The key is to build a strong foundation for students to lean on. 

“We need to let students figure out who they are before they leave these four walls,” Hawkins said. “If they establish themselves within these four walls they can find guidance, a support staff, and faculty and coaches that can steer them.”