Some Montgomery County Student Athletes Join National Anthem Protests

MCPS lets student athletes refrain from ‘patriotic exercises’ without fear of punishment


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Watkins Mills football players kneeling during the national anthem last year

CATHERINE HODGE - VIA WATKINS MILL CURRENT

Willie Williams, the head football coach at Winston Churchill High School, would prefer that his students link arms in protest rather than kneel during the national anthem.

That said, the retired professional cornerback will let his team decide when and how to make a statement. He is adamant about one thing: Whatever they do, they should do it together, he said Friday.

“It’s a brotherhood, and I want them to show that they’re together. No matter what race you are,” Williams said.

Across the National Football League last weekend, many players knelt or locked arms as statements during or before the anthem. A few teams—such as the Pittsburgh Steelers, for whom Williams used to play—stayed in the locker room during the anthem, so as to not get caught up in the controversy.

Now, student athletes across Montgomery County Public Schools are thinking about the messages they’re sending as “The Star-Spangled Banner” is played.

The ongoing debate began last year when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat on the bench during the national anthem, then took a knee in later games, as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality. The issue flared up again this month when President Donald Trump suggested that NFL players could lose their jobs if they protest. He likened kneeling for the national anthem to rude behavior toward the American flag.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners,” Trump said, “when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired.”

Trump has repeatedly tweeted about the protests, urging boycotts against NFL teams that don’t take action against players who protest and intensifying the public debate.

In 2016, football players from Watkins Mill High School followed Kaepernick’s example and dropped to a knee. A handful of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School players did the same during a game Thursday night against Churchill.

Cheerleaders from Montgomery Blair High School also knelt during a game this week, according to The Washington Post.

This week, school board member Pat O’Neill said she’d be shocked if students didn’t decide to protest in the wake of the NFL demonstrations.

O’Neill said she would support students’ First Amendment rights to do so.

During Monday’s school board meeting, she detailed her family’s military background. Her great-grandfather fought for the Union Army at Gettysburg, her ancestors fought in the Spanish-American War and World War I and her father was in World War II.

“I take patriotism and fighting for freedom very, very seriously,” she said.

But American soldiers throughout history have struggled to defend free speech and free expression, and O’Neill said she believes students have the right to exercise these freedoms.

Montgomery County Public Schools students can refrain from participation in “patriotic exercises” at school-related functions and should not be penalized or exposed to embarrassment for their decision, according to a district policy that doesn’t mention the national anthem specifically.

MCPS staff members are encouraged to interact with students about this type of activism, rather than issuing orders, according to district spokesman Derek Turner.

“The role of our coaches and staff is not to direct any student to act or not act, but we do encourage our staff to create a space for conversation and learning when issues like this arise,” Turner wrote in an email.

Not all schools have taken this position in the wake of the NFL protests. Parkway High School in Louisiana has warned student athletes they’ll be kicked off their teams unless they stand for the national anthem during school sports events.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted that the Louisiana schools are “on notice” that punishing students for protesting would violate their constitutional rights.

Matt Post, a student member of the Montgomery County school board, said the protests have been a major topic of discussion among his peers in recent days. He wasn’t aware of any other plans to follow the NFL athletes in taking a knee, but he voiced support for students who participate.

“I think the protest has done a really effective job of bringing more awareness to the topic of police brutality and racial injustice,” the Sherwood High School senior said.

But students should understand the significance of their actions if they participate, Williams said.

“If you’re going to protest, do it for something important. Just know what you’re protesting for and believe in what you’re protesting about,” he said.

Williams, who also played with the Seattle Seahawks, said he empathizes with NFL athletes who chose to demonstrate last weekend. As an African-American, he said, he’s been the target of racial slurs and discrimination, and athletes have a platform to shed light on inequality and unfairness.

“I understand, but I’d rather do it to show unity than just take the knee. Stand and interlock arms,” he said.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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