After staging a Colin Kaepernick-style protest of the national anthem last year, the preteen football players of the Beaumont (Tex.) Bulls saw their season descend into finger-pointing among parents, coaches and league administrators. Ultimately, the Bulls’ season was canceled with three games to go and in the aftermath of that experience, many of the parents and coaches involved created a new team, in a different league, set to play this year.
Just one problem: funding the new program, which includes dozens of children, many of whom have come over from the Bulls. That’s where a group of NFL players came in. They chipped in the $20,000 needed to get the inaugural season off the ground for the Southeast Texas Oilers.
— Flytymuziqman (@flytymuziqman) October 18, 2016
As reported by ESPN’s Tim McManus, those players don’t include Kaepernick, but each member of the group, composed of Malcolm Jenkins, Torrey Smith, Devin McCourty and Anquan Boldin, has expressed support in the past for the former 49ers quarterback. Jenkins, a member of the Eagles, and Boldin, currently a free agent, met representatives of the nascent program during a conference on equality in sports held in Houston during Super Bowl week in February, and they were convinced to help.
“We wanted to make sure that we sent those kids the message that it’s okay to stand up for what you believe in,” Jenkins told ESPN. “We didn’t want them to walk away from the season feeling punished for trying to do the right thing. We wanted to make sure that was rewarded and acknowledged and encouraged, so that was our main motivation for helping.”
With Kaepernick’s protests during pregame renditions of the anthem creating national headlines, the Bulls followed suit before a game on Sept. 10. Images of the 11- and 12-year-old boys taking a knee went viral, but while administrators for the Bay Area Football League were initially approving, the situation got more complicated the following week.
By the time of the Bulls’ next game, on Sept. 17, the team had been subjected to death threats and other forms of abuse, in addition to messages of support, from around the country. Some players and coaches decided not to kneel for that game, and head coach Rah Rah Barber was subsequently accused of trying to pressure them to continue the protests.
Eventually, that accusation was brought up as the Bulls’ executive board suspended Barber for creating a “hostile mood” (via the Beaumont Enterprise). He contended that he was being removed because of the protests, and as a show of solidarity, members of the team then began refusing to practice and play, until the Bulls soon did not have enough players to field a squad.
The Bulls’ season was canceled in October, although one parent, April Parkerson, said that the players would return if Barber were reinstated. Now a vice president for the Southeast Texas Oilers, Parkerson told ESPN that her family’s support for the protests did not come about lightly.
“We thought about it long and hard because we are a military family,” she said. “We had the support of friends and family and we all believe in doing the right thing and we all took a knee together. It just took off from there.”
Of the NFL players’ financial contribution this year, Parkerson said, “They made it possible for my kids to play football.”
“I believe it’s important for our youth to have a voice. To put a muzzle on them is a disservice to everyone,” Smith said in a statement (via ESPN). “We must continue to educate them and empower them to be the leaders of tomorrow.
“They need to know that their influence transcends the football field. Protesting in a nontraditional way shouldn’t keep our youth from playing the game we all love.”
Barber is now in charge of the Oilers, and he told McManus that the team will not begin its games with “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Citing the song’s third verse, which refers to the deaths of slaves who fought for the British in exchange for their freedom, Barber called it “degrading” and said that the Oilers would likely use “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful.”
Despite letting it be known that he would not be continuing his anthem protests before games this season, Kaepernick has not been able to find employment in the NFL since opting out of his 49ers contract in March. The 29-year-old quarterback has maintained his social activism, contributing to community-minded organizations with his time and money, while using his social-media platforms to decry police brutality and systemic racism, most recently expressing dismay at the acquittal of the Minnesota police officer who fatally shot Philando Castile.