Seven high school football coaches in Canton, Ohio, have been let go after they allegedly forced a 17-year-old player, who is a Hebrew Israelite and cannot consume pork, to eat a pepperoni pizza in front of the team as part of a punishment.
One assistant coach who was initially suspended with others, Badre El Bardawil, remains on the staff because an investigation didn’t show that he “performed in the same manner as the other coaches,” Superintendent Jeff Talbert told The Canton Repository.
The announcement comes just days after Ed Gilbert, the family’s attorney, said at a news conference Tuesday that the Canton City School District violated the child’s First Amendment rights when McKinley Senior High School head football coach Marcus Wattley and seven assistant coaches compelled the boy to eat pork on May 24 despite his numerous objections because of his faith. Gilbert said the family plans to sue the school district.
Gilbert told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the 17-year-old, who has not been publicly identified, was verbally assaulted by the coaches and faced pressure from his peers to eat the pizza despite his religious beliefs.
Wattley and assistant coaches El Bardawil, Cade Brodie, Joshua Grimsley, Romero Harris, Frank McLeod, Zachary Sweat and Tyler Thatcher were placed on paid administrative leave last week after the district’s superintendent became aware of the situation via a complaint, The Canton Repository reported.
Representatives with Canton City Schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
“It was a situation that deserves to be investigated, so we’re going to investigate it,” Talbert told the paper.
Wattley did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It is unclear whether he and the assistant coaches have attorneys.
Peter Pattakos, an attorney for Wattley, said that the player’s version of events were exaggerated and that the boy had the ability to leave at any time, the Repository reported.
Gilbert told The Post that the boy, who is reportedly 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds, injured his shoulder May 19 and that he skipped practice the next day. When the teenager showed up May 24 to a voluntary strength and conditioning session, Gilbert said, he was ordered to sit in a chair in the middle of the school’s gym. Then, Wattley, who has been at the school for two years, allegedly gave him an ultimatum: Eat the pepperoni pizza for skipping practice or his teammates would face additional drills.
The player’s refusal to eat the pizza also would mean that his position on the team could be jeopardized, the Repository reported.
Because he is a Hebrew Israelite, the player allegedly told the coaches at least 10 times that he was forbidden to eat pork or pork residue, according to Gilbert. The coaches allowed the athlete to remove some of the pepperoni from the pizza, but the pork residue was still on the slices, the attorney said at Tuesday’s news conference.
The boy acquiesced, but assistant coaches and teammates reportedly yelled at him as he ate the pizza. He later told his parents about what happened.
The boy’s father, Kenny Walker, said at the news conference Tuesday that his son was angered, hurt and bothered by what happened. Walker, who said the family has not eaten pork since 2013, questioned the coaches.
“I felt disrespected,” he said.
Coaches and players should have known about the player’s dietary restrictions because he has refrained from eating pork at previous team meetings and meals, Gilbert told reporters. In addition to avoiding pork and pork residue, some Hebrew Israelites shun dairy, eggs and sugar.
James Pasch, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Cleveland office, called the coaches’ actions “abhorrent.”
“For school coaches to reportedly force a student to eat food in violation of his religious beliefs is unacceptable [and] outrageous,” he tweeted. “This student deserved better; all students deserve better.”
Gilbert said he and the family would like to work something out with the school district as it wraps up its investigation, noting to The Post that the family has two years to take legal action under the statute of limitations.
The family’s attorney added that the boy is undergoing counseling following the incident.
“The family is hurt by this. They’re hurt by this stupid act,” Gilbert said at the news conference. “It’s beyond comprehension.”