These conversations started a long time ago, in offseason weight rooms, in car rides home, during film study at lunchtime, on the walk from the locker room to the practice field and back again.
Being a black young man in America is hard, Surrattsville Coach Cornell Wade tells his players, so come talk to him about it.
They do. They ask about girls or problems at home or difficult classes, but they also stop by when they see news stories about black men their age getting shot and killed by police.
And then Colin Kaepernick, in 2016, knelt down during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games to protest police brutality and racial economic inequality, and has found himself without a team this season.
More NFL players joined Kaepernick’s peaceful demonstration during the anthem, and President Trump last week called any player who took a knee a “son of a bitch” and told NFL owners to fire players who decline to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“It gives me a burning sensation to think about,” Surrattsville senior wide receiver Colin Dupree said.
In response, players at every NFL game last weekend made some sort of demonstration during the anthem. This week, high school football players and coaches around the D.C. area wrestled with the decision to do the same, while administrators offered guidance.
Wade’s Surrattsville Hornets, staring down one of their biggest games of the season against Eleanor Roosevelt on Friday, were thinking about kneeling. Some players were adamant that the Prince George’s County school, whose student body is 89 percent black, needs to make a statement on the field. Others wanted to, but have family serving nearby at Joint Base Andrews and worr ied what parents or siblings might say after the game.
So they have talked about it, senior lineman Steven Avents Jr. said, first among themselves and then with Wade. They were supposed to take a vote after school Friday, but never got around to it, then got mixed up in the locker room during game preparation and didn’t make it out to the field for the anthem after all. It was a complete accident, Wade said, but maybe not the worst thing in the world.
“These conversations happen in a high school locker room,” the coach said earlier in the week. “These are young men who have opinions and have feelings. I don’t know what they’re going to say, but I want them to know they have a voice.”
Ed Shields, the head coach at Suitland High School (also in Prince George’s County), gathered his team after warmups Wednesday and told them he knew the anthem was on their minds.
“What do y’all think?” he asked. “What should we do?”
“They just started talking,” Shields said. “That moved into conversation. Some of them were interested. Some of them said, ‘That’s not for us.’
“They said, ‘We don’t want any distractions from our season, but we can do other things in support, if you feel a certain way. You just don’t have to do it here.’ I could have not been there, and I think it would have ended the same way.”
Suitland will not demonstrate during the anthem, the team decided.
In Montgomery County, members of Blair’s cheerleading team did kneel in protest as the Einstein High band played the national anthem before the teams’ football game Thursday night. As a few cheerleaders who had never before protested during the anthem went down on one knee, several members of the team looked at the squad’s coach, Sara Rykoskey.
“Make sure you’re doing it because you want to kneel, not because you’re seeing everybody else do it,” she said she told them.
Quan’ell Kitchen, a sophomore cheerleader, has knelt during the anthem at every game this season to protest “racial injustice,” she said, a practice she started during her freshman year on the softball team. A Blair fan told her she needed to “stand up and respect your country.”
“I can’t respect a country that doesn’t respect my race,” she said later.
Many local school districts, including Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland and Loudoun County in Virginia, issued guidance to coaches not to punish, reprimand or embarrass students who did not stand for the anthem. Other school systems told The Washington Post they previously had addressed students’ rights to abstain from patriotic demonstrations at school.
“Public school students have a first amendment right to opt out of singing the national anthem and to engage in other peaceful, non-disruptive protests of political or social issues at school,” Loudoun County schools athletics supervisor Derek Farrey wrote in an email to coaches. “A coach should not require or encourage his players to sit or kneel for the national anthem.”
Some coaches reached by The Post said they wouldn’t be discussing the issue with their players, and some said they did not anticipate any of their players participating in any form of protest.
At Surrattsville, Wade said he would not tell his players what he thinks the team ought to do. He’s happy already, he said, that players feel comfortable enough to talk about personal issues or tragedies in the news, events players say consistently target black men.
“We’re at the bottom of the totem pole,” said Dupree, the wide receiver, “and we’ve been at the bottom of the totem pole forever, for like 200 years, now.”
He and teammates had researched anthem protests before deliberating with the rest of the varsity squad. They reread the Bill of Rights, they said, and looked up statistics on economic inequality, mass incarceration and police violence.
They know what they are talking about, Avents, the lineman, said: “[Trump] has the right to say what he wants to say, but we have the right to say what we want to say. We respond in a way where we still respect that flag, but we can send you a message, too.”
Callie Caplan contributed to this report.
More coverage of anthem protests: