Student Well-Being

Protests During National Anthem Spreading to High School Sports

By Bryan Toporek — September 16, 2016 4 min read
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During the 2016 NFL preseason, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick made headlines for refusing to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in protest of what he perceived to be racial inequalities and injustices in the United States. A number of high school athletes have followed in his footsteps in recent weeks.

Rodney Axson Jr., a senior quarterback at Brunswick (Ohio) High School, kneeled during the national anthem prior to a game earlier this month after overhearing teammates use racial slurs in reference to their opponents, which “has a roster with a majority of black players,” according to Nathaniel Cline of Since kneeling, Axson has received threats via social media and text messages, according to Cliff Pinckard of, “including a suggestion that he be lynched.” On Monday, after meeting with the Brunswick Police Department, members of Axson’s family and the Cleveland NAACP held a press conference in which they expressed their gratitude to local law enforcement, per Cline.

“I believe the police department is taking this very seriously,” said Mike Nelson, president of the Cleveland NAACP chapter, at the press conference. “The officer who is in charge of investigating this matter, who is affiliated with the school, is really on top of the source of this information, these derogatory offensive statements, as well as the possible ethical intimidation.”

At Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, N.J., head football coach Preston Brown told his players prior to their season-opening game that he planned to kneel during the national anthem, according to Phil Anastasia of All but two of them followed suit:

Video of Woodrow Wilson players and coaches taking a knee for national anthem before Saturday's game vs. Highland — Philip Anastasia (@PhilAnastasia) September 10, 2016

“I still love America. I still love our military,” Brown told Anastasia. “But this was our way of saying that things have to change in our country. There’s oppression, there’s social injustice, and these kids live it.”

In a statement, the Camden school district supported the students’ right to protest (via Anastasia):

“The district supports standing for the flag, but this is a personal issue, and we strongly respect our students’ experiences and their exercising our country’s First Amendment rights. Whether our students choose to stand, kneel, or otherwise, we’re proud of their engagement with what is more broadly a very important social justice issue.”

The Diocese of Camden, which oversees Catholic high schools in the area, isn’t so supportive of anthem protests. According to Anastasia, the diocese will hand a two-game suspension to any player or coach who doesn’t “demonstrate appropriate respect” during the national anthem. “Subsequent offenses” could lead to players or coaches being dismissed from their respective teams.

In Maine, South Portland High School athletic director Todd Livingston raised some eyebrows when tweeting a “national anthem code” prior to his school’s first football game of the season:

As Kelley Bouchard of the Portland Press Herald noted, the tweets “raised concerns that some students might feel pressured to do what is considered voluntary under the law. Livingston told Bouchard that his tweets weren’t directly related to Kaepernick’s protest; instead, he said if a student decides not to stand during the anthem, “that’s certainly up to them.”

On Sunday, a tweet from Doherty (Mass.) High School football player Michael Oppong went viral after he, too, took a knee during the national anthem:

On Monday, Worcester school district superintendent Maureen Binienda released a statement refuting the claim that Oppong is being punished.

“The Doherty student did not violate any school rule when he peacefully and silently protested during the National Anthem,” Binienda said. “He exercised his constitutional rights without disturbing the school assembly and he is not being disciplined in any way by his actions.”

These aren’t the only four cases forcing schools and districts to grapple with the issue of decorum during the national anthem, but they reflect the myriad of ways that the issue has come up in recent weeks. Unless the protests wind up being a short-lived movement, more districts may have to confront how to handle them in the coming weeks.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.