Published with permission from AlterNet.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick declared last month, explaining why he chose not to stand during the national anthem on August 26. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Since Kaepernick spoke these words, his protest has caught fire across the country, with NFL players from Miami to Seattle to Boston showing solidarity by kneeling or raising their fists in the air during the song. Meanwhile, players from other sports have joined in, with soccer star Megan Rapinoe kneeling during the national anthem, telling American Soccer Now that the gesture was “a little nod to Kaepernick and everything that he’s standing for right now.”
But getting far less attention are the high school football players across the United States, who, inspired by Kaepernick, are refusing to stand during the national anthem to protest racism and inequality. Many of those leading the protests are black and brown students who have grown up with images of young people who look like them being shot and killed by police.
Coaches and most members of the South Jersey Tigers high school football team, Woodrow Wilson, knelt during the national anthem on Saturday. “I am well aware of the third verse of the national anthem which is not usually sung, and I know that the words of the song were not originally meant to include people like me,” Tigers coach Preston Brown told NBC 10 on Saturday.
The third stanza states, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” As the Intercept’s Jon Schwartz pointed out, Francis Scott Key wrote those words during the war of 1812, in direct reference to U.S. slaves who fought for the British, “who accepted everyone and pledged no one would be given back to their ‘owners.’” Schwartz continues: “So when Key penned ‘No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,’ he was taking great satisfaction in the death of slaves who’d freed themselves. His perspective may have been affected by the fact he owned several slaves himself.”
The Tigers’ protest is captured in the following video:
On Friday, numerous players for Watkins Mills High in Montgomery County, Maryland also kneeled during the national anthem. “We just wanted to make a statement that America is not what you think it is,” said junior quarterback Markel Grant.
Players from Maury High in Norfolk, Virginia to Auburn High in Rockford, Illinois have taken similar action. While these young people are certainly not the first to use their roles as athletes to protest racism and injustice in the United States, they are part of a fresh wave of resistance amid the ongoing movement for Black Lives Matter led by young people in cities and towns across the U.S. In some cases, individual players are making the decision to stage small protests of one or two, as in the case of Lincoln, Nebraska player Sterling Smith, highlighted in thisnews report.
Rodney Axson, a high school player at Brunswick High School in Ohio, reportedlydecided to kneel during the national anthem after he witnessed his teammates using racial slurs to degrade opposing players. The 16-year-old says he faced severe backlash as a result, including anti-black racial epithets.
Unfortunately, Axson’s case is not an isolated one. According to a local media report, the announcer for a Friday football game at McKenzie High School in Alabama’s Butler County suggested that those who do not stand for the national anthem deserve to be shot. “If you don’t want to stand for the national anthem, you can line up over there by the fence and let our military personnel take a few shots at you since they’re taking shots for you,” said the announcer, Pastor Allen Joyner of Sweet Home Baptist Church.
Mike Oppong, a player for Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, Mass.,says he was initially suspended for a game for refusing to stand during the national anthem, but this punishment was revoked after public outcry. He told reporters, “We are disrespected and mistreated everywhere we go on a daily basis because of our skin color, and I’m sick of it.”
Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, she coedited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.