On Sept. 10, I took a knee when the national anthem began playing before our high school football game at Mike Rozier Stadium in East Camden, New Jersey. Most of the players on my team knelt, as did all of the coaches, including an Air Force veteran. We knelt – as we do when a player gets injured during a game – because we’re hurting.
One of my players is hurting after he walked into a store and the owner told his colleague in Spanish – not knowing that my player also speaks Spanish – to keep an eye on the cash register.
Another one of my players is hurting after this summer when, while on a college recruiting trip with me and other players in South Carolina, the police followed us as we walked to the beach. They interrogated us about where we were going, even though we were walking with our beach gear along the same route many white people were walking.
I’m hurting for my current players. I’m hurting for my former players, like Jameer Bullard, an 18-year-old who was murdered last year on the same block in Camden where my younger brother was murdered five years earlier. And I’m hurting because of what I fear my two young black sons might experience.
That’s why we knelt. We did not intend any disrespect to the military – I have family members in the military – and we did not intend any disrespect to the police – I’m close with the Camden police chief.
We knelt because we are Americans, and we believe the flag represents us as much as any other American, and our rights as Americans include freedom of speech. I believe many of my players knelt alongside me because doing so struck them as a respectful and safe way for them to register their dissatisfaction with the way they are treated as young black and Latino men.
If anyone doubted why we felt the need to call attention to the injustices we face, they only need to read the comments on the articles about our actions. From readers across the country, we were sent images of the Confederate flag. We were repeatedly told to leave the country. “Disgusting behavior obviously by an ignorant coach,” was among the nicer responses.
The online commenters and everyone else should know that I was the salutatorian of my high school class, as well as the student body president, the National Honor Society president, and an All-American football player. I was offered admission to Harvard University. I chose Tulane, one of the better universities in the country, I graduated and returned to Camden, my deeply challenged hometown, to try to make a positive difference in the lives of young people.
Today, nearly half of the football team is on the honor roll. And, thanks in part to the South Carolina college trip we took this summer, 11 of my players have received full scholarship offers to Division I universities.
So what’s next? That’s up to us – all of us.
I may not kneel at every game – the focus should not be on what I am doing but why I am doing it. But the action – the community service projects, the dialogue with police officials, the classroom conversations – will only continue.
My coaches, players and I have used this experience as a teachable moment, and I hope other people do, too.
The writer is the dean of climate and culture and the head football coach at his alma mater, Woodrow Wilson High School, in Camden, N.J. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.