Gridiron Grit

NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has restored the role of the black athlete as a leading fighter for human rights in general, and specifically for the rights of African Americans.  His simple act of kneeling, rather than standing with hand on heart, during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner has inspired myriad acts of protest and solidarity from athletes at all levels, ranging from pre-teen youth to professional football and basketball players.

The practice of not worshipping the flag and related trappings of patriotism at sporting events has impacted the Pittsburgh area in a big way.  People are taking a stand for equality by taking the knee, and some of the heroes aren’t even athletes – they’re player supporters like parents, fans and cheerleaders.

The fans and cheerleaders of Cornell High School in Coraopolis haven’t had much to cheer about on the gridiron — the Raiders have yet to win a game – but on September 30th twelve out of fifteen Cornell cheerleaders took a knee during the playing of the national anthem.  The honor guard at that particular game happened to represent the local VFW post, and so the protest prompted tears, vitriol and stupid statements like “these kids don’t know what they’re doing.”

Don’t know what they’re doing? How about, protesting racism?

More ominously, Superintendent Aaron Thomas, his family and other administrators received hundreds of threatening phone calls as the Youtube video went viral and paragons of truth and reason like the website Blue Lives Matter spread the lie that Thomas had deliberately set the vets up.  To Thomas and the school board’s credit, the rights of the students to protest were respected, but because of the threats, attendance at the homecoming game two weeks later was restricted to parents of players.

The bold action of the cheerleaders, with the parents standing behind them, and the superintendent standing behind them, is representative of the pluck of this small community. The very existence of this year’s winless football team is a victory: it is the first team Cornell has fielded in five years.  The last team, from 2011, went 5-5 and made the WPIAL playoffs.  This year’s team has few players with any high school football experience – just a few who had suited up for Quaker Valley in previous seasons but none of them had gotten any playing time.

Cornell serves residents of Coraopolis and Neville Township, small working-class communities whose population has dwindled over the decades – Coraopolis has about 5,600 residents and Neville about 1,000 – so there aren’t a lot of kids in the district.  The percentage of African-Americans, in both Coraopolis and the school district, is rising.

The response of Thomas, the school board, coaching staff and parents is commendable. Rather than give in to those who would mischaracterize legitimate (and respectful) protest speech as something else, this small working-class community seems to be holding the line and supporting their youth.

Abide no evil

Last month, three players from Woodland Hills took a knee during the national anthem during a game at Bethel Park.  The all-black team was then subjected to racial taunts from the stands and from opposing players.  This was a game in the Parkway Youth Football League, whose players are 12-and-under.

The same three Wolverines had taken a knee earlier in the season, with no backlash from fans. When questioned then by their coach about the motive of their actions, they reasonably enough felt strongly about the spate of cop-on-black killings – especially the shooting of young Tamir Rice in Cleveland.  Coach Marcus Burkley Sr. decided to support their right to express their opinions.  He was proud of how his team kept its composure in Bethel Park, going on to win the game by a score of 20-6.  (See the Oct. 15 Post-Gazette.)

The president of the Bethel Park team promised an investigation and Woodland Hills officials were initially optimistic.  But it turned out to be a hear-no-evil investigation.  The Bethel Park Junior Football Board released a statement that said, “Not one individual we spoke with observed, witnessed or can corroborate Woodland Hills’ accusations of racial slurs or discrimination.”

But Woodland Hills supporters aren’t buying it and in a massive show of solidarity, dozens of fans of all ages – black and white – took a knee before the young Wolverines’ home game against Moon Township late last month.

A lot of divisive trash talk has congealed around the election and the response to the police shootings of people of color, attempting to portray our reality as black against white, native born versus immigrants, and scary blacks versus hard-pressed cops. But these local incidents point the way forward. White people can and do support the sanctity of black lives and our right to protest injustice.  In both cases, these are working-class communities where black and white live in close proximity to one another and go to school together.

And it is the young people who have forced the issue; thank goodness the adults responded.


— Jim Collins


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