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Opinion: Football Parents Could Learn From Their Kids' Activism

A football lies on the turf prior to the NFL Week 1 game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks on September 13, 2020.
David J. Griffin
Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
A football lies on the turf prior to the NFL Week 1 game between the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks on September 13, 2020.

There's a controversy in Gloucester County, New Jersey, that began at a football game on October 4. The national anthem was about to be played when the running back for the Gibbstown Falcons told his coach, Rashad Thomas, "I want to kneel."

Coach Thomas told his running back, "I'll kneel with you." An assistant coach joined them. Coach Thomas told his players that no one had to kneel, but soon the whole team had joined them, and held hands. They were teammates.

The Gibbstown Falcons players are 8 and 9 years old. They've seen some of the most prominent stars in sports kneel for the national anthem, and children often try to emulate sports heroes.

Then, parents got involved. Some in the stands began to yell profanities, according to reporting by Ellie Rushing for the Philadelphia Inquirer. "Get the f--- up!" shouted a father who is also a member of the league's football board. Another board member, who is also the cheerleading coach, stalked into the field and pulled her son up by his shoulder pads. One parent was heard to yell, "We didn't raise you that way!"

Some of the football players began to cry. They are 8 and 9-years old.

Four football board members voted to suspend the Falcons coaching staff, saying coaches had ordered their team to kneel; which they had not. Those suspensions have since been lifted, and two board members have been disciplined for their actions at the game.

The Gibbstown Falcons are a team put together from two towns where enrollment in the youth football leagues is down in these pandemic times: Paulsboro, where the team was about 90% black, and Gibbstown, where the team was mostly white. Some Black families from Paulsboro say they haven't felt welcome at practices and games.

The football board has apologized, saying, "We respect everyone's right to display their peaceful personal expressions and beliefs..." But many Black families still feel uncomfortable about their children playing for—and their family cheering for—a team on which several board members, who are also parents, cursed at their sons for kneeling with their teammates and coaches.

Somehow, between all the adults swearing and suspending and apologizing, the Gibbstown Falcons have won four games, and lost just one. Coach Thomas now has the words BLACK LIVES MATTER on the back of his team polo. "This is not just football," he told the Inquirer. "It's a life lesson." Perhaps a lesson for parents, too, to stay in the stands and just watch their children.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.