Youth football coach Marcus Burkley knew there would be backlash if his players knelt during the national anthem. He just never thought it would be this severe.
When three members of Burkley’s all-black team took a knee during a Saturday night game in Bethel Park, Pa., people in the stands began shouting racial slurs at them, eventually becoming so aggressive that police were called to keep the peace, he said.
“Once they took a knee, you see cameras and people taking pictures,” Burkley, who is also African American, told WPXI. “And out of nowhere you just hear, ‘If the little n-word want to take a knee, they shouldn’t be able to play.’”
As the game proceeded, Burkley said, some of his 12- and 13-year-old players told him they heard the same thing on the field from the opposing team. He said neither he nor his Woodland Hills Wolverines had encountered anything like it in the two years they have played in the league.
“It was sad and scary that kids were subjected to this,” Burkley told PennLive. “I didn’t sleep that night.”
So far, no one has come forward to dispute the account.
It’s getting ugly out there in America.
Similar incidents have played out on athletic fields around the country in the weeks since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked a national controversy by refusing to rise for “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a game — a protest he said was intended to draw attention to fatal shootings by police.
Kaepernick said he has received death threats for his actions, as have other professional athletes who have joined him. And as his display has caught on in college sports and little league teams, younger players haven’t been spared either. Last month, members of a youth football team in Beaumont, Tex., reported receiving death threats and remarks about lynching in online comments after they took a knee during the anthem, local media reported.
Also in September, a University of North Dakota linebacker who knelt at a game said people on Facebook and Twitter called him racial slurs and told him that he deserved to be lynched and shot, as The Washington Post reported.
What seems to set the situation for Burkley’s Wolverines apart is just how overt the insults were, purportedly coming straight from people watching — and playing — the game.
In a Facebook post over the weekend, Burkley said fans of the opposing team screamed “racial things” at them and called them “N—–s.” The opposing team’s players made similar slurs on the field, he said.
“Players told me, coach, they’re calling us the n-word,'” Burkley told WPXI.
He also accused referees of penalizing his team without explanation and said that his team members and their parents were denied service at a concession stand. Employees said the food was reserved for Bethel Park fans, he said, “but with all that going on, it seemed like another attack.”
At some point, the atmosphere got so tense that someone called police, who stood guard on the field. Burkley told PennLive that the call came from the opposing team.
The president of the Bethel Park Junior Football League, Paul Currie, told WPXI he was not aware of what happened at the game, but was looking into it.
Saturday’s outing was not the first time Burkley’s players had taken a knee at a game. Earlier in the season, the coach said, the same three players knelt during the national anthem, and when they did, Burkley challenged them on it.
Their response was eloquent, he told PennLive.
“The ones who took a knee did so because they feel African Americans are not being treated equally,” Burkley said, adding that they cited the fatal police shooting of Tamir Rice, a black boy who was holding a realistic-looking BB gun, in Cleveland in 2014.
“Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old,” Burkley recalled them saying, “and we’re still 12-year-olds.”
If they wanted to do it again, Burkley told them, he would back them “100 percent” if they received backlash. “And I knew we would,” he said.
Burkley’s Facebook post from after the game has since been shared hundreds of times and elicited a long list of overwhelmingly positive comments. Many people congratulated him and the players for maintaining their cool during a tense game. “Keeping your team’s composure was the best way to push through this,” one commenter wrote. “It takes a lot to be the bigger man.”
The Wolverines ended up beating Bethel Park 20-6 on Saturday night. In a follow-up post Sunday evening, Burkley was upbeat.
“We battled through adversity and remained focused! I love this group! They learned a huge lesson and got a taste of what this cold society can sometimes dish out,” Burkley said, thanking the team’s parents and fans. “It’s bigger than football! We lead by example and with class!”