High school football players across the country are following San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's lead in his protest of social injustices by kneeling during the national anthem at their own games.
The action has resulted in players in many states, including Alabama, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, being suspended while others have reported harassment or threats because of it.
Mary Boyle, Superintendent of the Catholic Schools Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, wrote in response to the incidents that schools are not required to offer free speech as a guaranteed right.
Boyle told administrators and coaches at the school that any player who did not "demonstrate appropriate respect" by choosing to not stand during the national anthem would face game or team suspensions.
While Kaepernick has received mounting criticism for his stance, he continues to play with his team each week. Despite not having the support of the 49ers or the NFL, he has also not been threatened with any punishment for his actions. Meanwhile, high school administrators and coaches must walk a fine line between the right to free speech and keeping order among students.
Bob Farrace, director of public affairs for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, noted a ruling by the Supreme Court in 1969 that allowed public school students in Iowa to wear black armbands as a form of silent protest against the Vietnam War. However, Farrace added, "There are limits on students' free speech."
Michael Walker, director of the Office of Black Male Student Achievement in the Minneapolis Public Schools, said he used the NFL protests as a way to begin research into the verses of the national anthem with his class. At the time, he was unaware that six or seven of the football players in his class had planned to protest the anthem by kneeling during the game held last Friday night.
"We want to make sure that our students have the space and safety to share their thoughts, their beliefs, their perspectives on different things that are happening within their community, within our society and so this is no different," he said. "We let them make decisions on their own with the information that they have. But what we also discussed with them â¦ (were the) consequences for your actions. You have to understand that there is always two sides. There will be some people who will support you. There will be some people who will not support you in your stance and how are you ready to handle the repercussions of that?"
Meanwhile, junior quarterback Michael Oppong at Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester, Massachusetts stated he was informed that he would be suspended for one game after he announced plans to kneel during the anthem before a game. However, Worcester Superintendent Maureen Binienda has since released a statement saying that Oppong had not broken any school rules through his silent protest, adding that it was within his constitutional rights to do so and that no punishment would be handed out.
Students are not the only ones to join in the protest. Football coach Preston Brown, who works at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, knelt during the national anthem before the first game of his team's season in an effort to bring attention to social injustices and economic disparities, writes Aaron Carter for Philly.com. While he did not suggest that any of the players follow suit, all but two did.