When the national anthem kicked on, Larry McCullough dropped to his knee. His cousin, Cedric “CJ” Ingram-Lewis, raised a fist into the Texas air.
After the song finished Friday night, the two Crosby high school football players — 18 and 16, respectively — were confronted by their coach, Ronnie Mitchem, from Victory & Praise Christian Academy.
“He told us that disrespect will not be tolerated,” Ingram-Lewis told the Houston Chronicle. “He told us to take off our uniform and leave it there.”
Mitchem kicked them off the team.
Right there on the field, before the first whistle blew for the Victory & Praise Sharks’ matchup with Providence Classical, the cousins yanked off their equipment. “He had me and CJ strip down — our uniform, pads, the pants and all — in front of everyone,” McCullough told Reuters.
Their demonstration came as the National Football League faces a storm of controversy over the Colin Kaepernick-inspired protests against police brutality and racial injustice — a fiery debate that has pulled President Trump into its vortex. And while the NFL continued to see protests Sunday, the movement has spread to the lower levels of athletic play, but with different consequences.
While professional teams have grudgingly embraced their players’ right to free speech, college and high school athletic programs have been less comfortable with the collision between sports and protests.
Last week, the College of the Ozarks, a Christian college in Branson, Mo., announced that none of its athletic teams will play against competitors who do not stand for the anthem. The principal of a high school in Bossier City, La., recently sent a letter home to students announcing that any player protesting during the anthem would lose playing time. And now McCullough and Ingram-Lewis have been benched.
In an interview over the weekend, Mitchem, an ex-Marine and pastor, defended his actions.
“As a veteran I have a strong view of what I feel is disrespectful,” the coach said. Mitchem noted he gave fair warning to his players at the Thursday practice before the game. “If you do that, your career as a Shark is over.”
Knowing the stakes, the two players went forward with their protest. “It was really showing the injustice for black people,” McMullough told KPRC. “All the stuff that’s going on in the NFL, stuff like that, so I feel I need to be a part of it, too.”
“If they feel strongly about that, that’s something that should be addressed,” Mitchem said. “But my whole point was, there was a proper time — and I told the team this — there’s a proper time to do something, and a proper way.”
Ingram-Lewis’s mother told Reuters she was not happy with the coach’s decision. “He has like a slave-master mentality,” Rhonda Brady said. “If you would go back to that, when they wanted to tell us, ‘This is what you’re going to do and this is how you’re going to do it,’ and if we didn’t comply, we were beaten, whooped, or even killed.”