Preston Brown has never felt an emotional connection to “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Growing up African-American in Camden—where he witnessed extreme poverty, violence and drug deals on a daily basis—his reality made it difficult to relate to “the land of the free” sung about in the song.
So as a star athlete at Woodrow Wilson High School, and later at Tulane University, he usually chose to sit down when the national anthem was played before games or just stand with his teammates as a formality. Even last year, when he returned to Woodrow Wilson as the head coach of the football team, he did his own thing during the anthem, whether grabbing a drink of water or going over last-minute details with an assistant coach.
Nobody ever seemed to pay much attention to what Brown was doing during the national anthem. But that all changed on Sept. 10.
When San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his national anthem protest during the NFL preseason this summer to bring attention to police brutality and social injustice in the United States, the initial reaction was shock. But other athletes soon identified with his beliefs and the protest spread, across the NFL and even to other sports.
Brown gathered his own team on Sept. 9 the night before its season opener at Highland. He explained that he, too, was going to take a knee the next day during the national anthem and gave his reasons for doing so. He also stressed that every player and coach on the team was free to make his own decision and was under no responsibility to follow Brown’s lead.
“[Kaepernick’s protest] definitely resonated with me because of many of the different things I’ve seen and some of the racism I’ve experienced,” Brown says. “As a minority student at Tulane, I was constantly asked to rewrite papers because I was accused of cheating. This summer, I had a bunch of our players down in South Carolina for a visit to The Citadel and I even had two of my kids with me. We were followed to the beach, even though there were other groups of young [white] people going to the same beach who weren’t followed. My 4-year-old son was asking me, ‘Why are the police following us?’
“So it’s a number of different things. There are housing issues going on in the community where I grew up [in East Camden]. The same houses that were abandoned on the streets I grew up on are still abandoned now. They look even worse than they did then. That just blows my mind. There’s not much conversation and not much is happening.”
Brown hoped to bring awareness to those issues in some small way. He had no idea it would blow up the way it has.
All of his players, except for two, joined Brown in kneeling for the anthem before the Highland game. So did the entire coaching staff, including an Air Force veteran. They did the same the next week before a game against Northern Burlington before ending the protest.
The attention that followed was unlike anything they could have imagined. Media interest came flooding in from all over the country and even the BBC. Letters and social media posts, many of them negative and hurtful, were directed at Brown and his players.
“For a while there, I felt there was more conversation about the act of kneeling and whether or not it’s respectful,” says Paymon Rouhanifard, superintendent of the Camden City School District, which includes Woodrow Wilson. “I thought then, as I still do now, that the dialogue should be more about why they’re kneeling. I’ve had a couple conversations in the last couple of weeks where I felt that was more of the dialogue we were having. [But] I still don’t think there’s enough of it.”
As Rouhanifard points out, many see the national anthem protests as disrespectful to the flag and the many men and women who have given their lives protecting our freedoms. They might under- stand the reasons for the protests but not the manner in which they’re presented.
Joe Coccia, a retired police officer who spent 25 years in law enforcement, including 16 as an officer/detective in Washington Township, is one of those people. Although he admits to not knowing much about the Woodrow Wilson protest, he has strong feelings about Kaepernick and similar movements in the NFL.
“I was very disappointed [in Kaepernick] and I find it very disrespectful,” he says. “My personal opinion is that many men and women have died serving in the military for everything that flag stands for, and for him to choose that as a way to get his message across was very disrespectful.”
Coccia, a fervent football fan, has been so affected by the protests that he’s vowed not to watch the NFL until they stop.
“I have not watched one down all season and I will not,” he says. “Many men and women have died for that flag, and because they have it gives somebody like Colin Kaepernick the opportunity to choose the job he wants and to make the kind of money he’s making. To show such disrespect, I find it appalling and I will not watch a game again until the NFL changes their stance on that type of activity.”
The Diocese of Camden, which includes local high schools such as Paul VI, Camden Catholic and Gloucester Catholic, has also come out against the anthem protests. Mary P. Boyle, the diocese superintendent, sent a letter to administrators and coaches in September that read in part: “It is expected that our administration and coaches as well as our athletes will show respect during prayer, pledges and the playing or singing of the national anthem. ... Failure to demonstrate appropriate respect will result in suspension from play [for two games] or dismissal from the team for subsequent offenses.”
On the other hand, the NJSIAA—the governing body of high school sports in New Jersey—had prepared in the summer for the protests to possibly trickle down to its member schools and has taken the stance that it is a constitutional right of students to protest.
“My understanding is that it’s been respectful, which is something we talked about and hoped it would be,” says Larry White, assistant director of the NJSIAA and a West Deptford resident. “The general public and the teams that don’t protest understand that it’s a fundamental right in this country to be able to peacefully protest certain things. As long as that hap- pens, our position is that it’s fine. We also talked about hoping that the schools would follow the chain of command in terms of having the discussion with the athletic director and the principal. ... From what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen, that has taken place and the game gets played and everybody moves on.”
For Jason Hill, the athletic director at Eastern, the issue has not come up with his students. If it did, however, he con- curs with the NJSIAA’s reasoning.
“As long as it’s not interfering with the rights of others or affecting the game of play, from my standpoint there wouldn’t be any discipline or anything like that,” Hill says. “The bottom line is that everybody has freedom of speech.”
For his part, Brown emphasizes that his protest never had anything to do with the military or police.
“It’s not that at all,” he says. “We value and respect all police officers. I deal with police in Camden probably on a bi-weekly basis in terms of communicating and working with the young people. We have detail officers who come and volunteer their time. I work with one of the retired officers from the city of Camden, Tracy Hall, who has a suicide prevention foundation.
“One of our coaches is a retired Air Force veteran who also kneeled that day. He’s one of my former coaches and now he coaches with me. My grandfather and my uncle served in the military. I don’t have any ill will toward the military. They’re the ones who keep our country safe.”
Kelly Francis, the president of the Camden County branch of the NAACP for the last 18 years, believes the protests have raised important issues about “The Star-Spangled Banner” itself, which he feels doesn’t truly represent African- Americans. He points to the third verse of the song—unknown to many—which contains lyrics about slaves that could be interpreted as racist.
“There are people who are talking about the flag and the servicemen, but it has nothing to do with that,” Francis says. “There are [plenty of ] African-Americans who have died fighting under that flag. Now we’re first-class citizens, but you cannot change the history of the national anthem. It was written for free white folks; it wasn’t written for Africans who were property at the time.”
Clearly, the protests have elicited strong feelings from those on both sides of the argument. But what’s the next step in the process?
“I think it’s a good thing if ... there’s a dialogue that goes on in terms of what is it that we’re really trying to say here? What are we protesting?” White says. “I know what it is, but do the student athletes, especially the younger ones, really get it? Because to me, it’s kind of an empty gesture if it’s not impacting the kids you’re trying to impact by saying we need to do this.
“For the schools that aren’t protesting, maybe that conversation needs to be had about why are they doing that? They’re doing it because there are some social things going on in this country that may not be right. It’s like anything, if the adults take the time to explain it and discuss the things going on, it makes us a better country and that’s the bottom line.”
Rouhanifard, an Iranian refugee who says he chooses to stand for the national anthem and the pledge of allegiance because of its personal meaning to him, nevertheless has been supportive of Brown and his students from the beginning of their protest.
He adds that their position has helped lead to the very discussions that White talks about.
“Our central office team has had several meetings over the past few weeks to lay the groundwork to better support and train our teachers and administrators to facilitate this dialogue at the school level,” Rouhanifard says. “We want to continue to provide that nurturing environment, that safe space for [students] to speak the truth and allow them to have a sense of identity through all of this, to know who they are and that their experiences matter. That is such a critical role we have as educators.”
After the initial backlash he received, Brown says now there have also been many encouraging responses in the last several weeks. That includes a visit from Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins—a former New Jersey high school player himself who has joined the protest before games this season—who bought sneakers for every member of the team.
“It’s been extremely positive,” Brown says. “There have been interesting articles that came out nation- and world- wide. I’ve received tons of letters of sup- port from people around this country and other countries. I’m talking about places like Singapore, England, France. People send postcards. They donate money to the program so kids can buy food and they’ve sent Amazon gift cards. There’s a family in Texas that is raising three kids, and they just sent the team a $1,000 check two or three days ago. I’m working on compiling individual letters to all the people who have reached out.”
Francis, who was active in the NAACP during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, says the recent activity in the country is starting to remind him of that time period.
“Absolutely,” he says. “And I support [Brown]. He has a legitimate reason and he has every right to protest.”
The protests have already carried over to the NBA, where a singer named Denasia Lawrence performed the national anthem while kneeling before a preseason game between the Philadelphia 76ers and Miami Heat in Florida. At the Sixers’ regular-season opener in Philadelphia, Sevyn Streeter was not allowed to sing the anthem as planned because she was wearing a shirt that said “We Matter,” so clearly the debate rages on.
Similar actions by singers, student athletes or coaches could certainly find their way to South Jersey gymnasiums this winter. If so, the hope is that the protests remain peaceful like they have at Woodrow Wilson.
“I think it is starting a conversation, which is good at this point in time,” Eastern’s Hill says. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings on both sides. The more that people can talk and express themselves, they gain a better under- standing of each other and the better off it makes us as a country.”
Photograph courtesy of BBC/Saquan Stimpson
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 8 (October, 2016).
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