San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s social injustice statement of kneeling during the national anthem has reached the playing fields of Ohio, where players, coaches and even referees are exploring where the boundaries of personal expression should be.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association last week issued a statement to officials of athletic contests directing them not to pass judgment on players, coaches or teams that adopt Kaepernick’s silent protest during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner.
That was a proactive move by the OHSAA to diffuse potential confrontations between officials — many of them retired military personnel — and those who kneel, raise two arms to simulate “don’t shoot” or a raised fist to acknowledge the Black Lives Matter movement during the pregame tradition.
“We had one official who asked us if they could throw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct to start the game,” OHSAA director of media relations Tim Stried said. “We were getting questions like that.”
No other single event has moved an entire nation’s collective conscience quite like Kaepernick’s did on Aug. 26. In less than 90 seconds, he turned an otherwise meaningless preseason NFL game against the Green Bay Packers into a polarizing historic moment that transcends sports.
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The OHSAA mandate said, in part: “It is not within the purview of officials to make judgments on personal, social, or political opinions of any player or coach. It is neither proper nor warranted for officials to express their pleasure or displeasure with how players act during the national anthem.”
That became an issue when an Ohio soccer official who also was a military veteran threatened to leave a contest rather than work a game because all players weren’t at attention during the anthem. Other officials sought guidance by the OHSAA on how to react to pregame protests.
Kaepernick’s protest, aimed at pointing attention to the number of black men shot in confrontations with police, resonated with members of the football team at Dunbar High School, a mostly black school in Dayton.
“As captains, we all had a discussion on what we should do for the national anthem and we came up with the idea we should put our hands up,” Wolverines senior receiver Chris Jackson said.
“As long as we get the point across for what we’re trying to represent as players and a team, we want our nation to become better and equal as one society. It doesn’t matter who puts their hands up, who gets on a knee or who puts a hand over their heart, as long as we represent what we’re feeling and how we see society.”
Dunbar head football coach Darran Powell said coaches also huddled with players about a possible silent protest. He encouraged players to make their own choice and not just follow along with others. What began as a few players taking a knee now includes many others — including coaches — raising their arms while others keep with the traditional hand over their hearts.
“If you really feel strongly about it then go ahead and do your own silent protest and don’t make no big deal out of it,” Powell said he told his players. “I have four young black boys,” he said of his own family. “It hits home for me. Hopefully, the world will wake up and see our protests and some things change.”
Wolverines assistant coach Jay Pruitt, also a Dunbar alum, knelt during the anthem prior to a Week 4 game. Last week he put both hands up.
““We’re all still fighting for one goal, to have a greater society and greater America,” he said. “That’s the point. It’s not what each individual is doing, it’s acknowledgement that we all want the same thing.”
OHSAA assistant commissioner Beau Rugg made the call for referees to back off on punishing anyone for an anthem protest. It ultimately was likened to on-field praying.
“The only thing I feel responsible for is what happens on the basketball court, baseball diamond or football field,” said Bob Juliano, in his 42nd year with the Greene County Officials Association. “You see teams drop and pray before or after a game. We have nothing to do with that.”
President Barack Obama this week said he respects Kaepernick’s right to free speech and understands why he is protesting, but called on all sides to consider the multiple points of view.
“I want (the protesters) to listen to the pain that may have caused somebody who, for example, had a spouse or a child who was killed in combat and why it hurts them to see somebody not standing,” he said. “I also want people to think about the pain he may be expressing about somebody who’s lost a loved one that they think was unfairly shot.”
While some are clearly angered by the protests, retired U.S. Air Force officer Ray Bradshaw isn’t one of them.
An official of football, basketball, baseball and softball, you won’t find too many people more patriotic than Bradshaw, who spent 10 years — half his time in the military — as an Honor Guard.
“We’re the ones who carry the veteran, retiree or active-duty senior member to their final resting place,” he said. “We’re the ones who hold the flag. We’re the ones who hand the flag off. I have a very good understanding of what service is and what we’re doing as a military branch. I know respect for the flag.”
But Bradshaw, who is black, said he draws a distinction between respecting the flag and respecting the values the flag stands for, and he believes Americans are responsible for defending those who are mistreated.
“I believe Colin Kaepernick is exercising his freedom of speech in a peaceful way,” he said. “He’s not being disruptive. He’s not desecrating the flag. He’s just highlighting an area that a lot of people don’t want to talk about.”