Protest the National Anthem? That won’t be allowed at our school, coach says
CAMDEN – Saturday was not the first time that Woodrow Wilson High School football coach Preston Brown "took a knee" during the National Anthem. A 2003 graduate of the same school, he used to sit out the anthem as a basketball player as well.
But the attention paid as he was joined by several players Saturday has other New Jersey schools looking at their own policies.
Brown, Wilson High's Dean of Climate and Culture told Dom Girodano on Philadelphia radio station WPHT that he'd sat out the anthem before. Brown said that he remembered his grandmother, who came to the United States from Haiti in 1932, telling him about the StarSpangled Banner as a child, and it was "never compelling" to him.
"I didn't feel like the original intent of it was made for people like me and my grandmother, and all of the different things that I witnessed growing up with black and hispanic people — people of minority and color," he said.
Brown said he'd get sent to the principal's office for refusing to sing the anthem. He also wouldn't stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Brown said he would sit during basketball games, feeling it was being "pushed upon us to do it."
He said that things in his view have not changed for African Americans in Camden since he was in high school.
Senior Anthony Ramos, appearing with Brown, said team members believed in what Brown was doing, and it was the team's choice to join Brown. All but two players joined him in sitting out the anthem Saturday.
"We still see racism today and police brutality towards colored people," Ramos said.
Michael Wolfthal, athletic director at Bishop Ahr in Edison, a Catholic high school that competes in the Greater Middlesex League, said he believes the Woodrow Wilson team was following Brown's lead.
"We hire coaches to lead our athletes. Do I like the protest? No I don't. Are there other things that can be done? Very definitely," said the 35-year-veteran, adding that he began to think about his school's lack of a policy about expected behaviors during the playing of the National Anthem.
He plans to meet with his coaches on Saturday to discuss establishing a policy.
"We pray before our athletic contests. I would be upset if a kid didn't pray," Wolfthal said.
Wolfthal's solution is for any coach or student who feels strongly enough to protest "to stay in the locker room after the anthem. We don't want to be a spectacle. We want people at the game to see the game, not the protest. We're providing entertainment."
"We're very fortunate that we live in the United States where we can do anything we want as citizens within the law," Wolfthal said, adding that we have individual liberties and he may not like all the decisions people make. But he said he would be "very uncomfortable having to reprimand a student athlete or a coach for not respecting the United States of America and the rights they are given."
Jeanne LoCicero of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union said a private school such as Bishop Ahr could establish a policy requiring student athletes to stand.
"Private schools are non-government entities and they have a much wider range to enact regulations over student conduct and expression," LoCicero said.
But student in public schools, however, are protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and a policy forcing them to stand during the national anthem would not be constitutional, she said.
"Just like a school can’t force students to stand for the Pledge, they can’t can’t force students to express a particular viewpoint about the national anthem. It’s contrary to what our constitution is all about which is allowing citizens to engaged in all kinds of speech and discourse in public life.” LoCicero said. "Peaceful expression, no matter how unpopular or controversial, can't be censored.
"The right to expression is not absolute. Vulgar speech or speech that incited violence or personal attack can be censored," LoCicero said.
Retired Jackson Memorial High School marching band director Bud McCormick estimates between games and appearances he has directed the National Anthem nearly 300 times over his 37 year career.
"We were very proud, and honored to perform the National Anthem. I reflected back, to all the great Americans, every time i hear it, and appreciate the struggle they went thru, to make us this great nation." McCormick said.
"There were times I was so proud to play it, it made me tear up," McCormick said.
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