On Friday night at Caldwell Field in Farmington, the Lawrence and Mt. Blue high school football teams, coaches, and cheerleaders stood at attention as the national anthem was played as part of the pre-game ceremonies. On Saturday afternoon at Poulin Field in Winslow, the same scenario played out with the football players, coaches, and cheerleaders from Mt. Desert Island and Winslow high schools.

The only difference was on the Winslow sideline, where Black Raider players and coaches locked hands as the national anthem played.

Those were normal scenes played out at dozens of high school football fields around the state over the weekend. Only this season, protests by professional athletes around the country have drawn attention to conduct during the national anthem at all levels of sports.

It began a few weeks ago, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel, rather than stand, for the anthem to protest what he deemed racial oppression and police brutality. Since then, other athletes have followed suit. Soccer star Megan Rapone knelt during the anthem before her Seattle Reign team played a game. Other NFL players joined Kaepernick by kneeling, and some raised a fist in the air during the anthem.

High school football players in central Maine said they’re aware of the professional protests, but had not discussed the topic at great length with their teammates.

“We’ve definitely seen it on the news, ‘Sportscenter’ and all those channels. I don’t think we’ve really talked about it as a team,” Skowhegan senior and football co-captain Garrett McSweeney said. “I think we respect it. We respect the flag and respect the anthem. We always stand up.”

Skowhegan’s football practice field is adjacent to the field on which the schools soccer teams play. When a Skowhegan soccer game coincides with football practice, the football team pauses its workout when it hears the national anthem begin, McSweeney said.

“If we’re in the middle of practice and the soccer game is going on and they do the national anthem, we’ll take our helmets off and we’ll respect that,” McSweeney said.

Mike Burnham, an assistant executive director with the Maine Principals’ Association, said the organization has not been approached by any member school looking for guidance on how to handle a student anthem protest. Burnham said Marty Ryan, the executive director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Association, reached out to Lee Green, a law professor at Baker University in Topeka, Kansas, for a legal opinion regarding student anthem protests. Green’s email was forwarded to every high school athletic director in the state, Burnham said.

Green wrote that student protests of the anthem at a public school should be considered protected speech. The legal standard comes from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Tinker vs. Des Moines School District case, in which the court ruled schools may limit student speech when it causes a substantial disruption of the work and environment of the school.

“My overall point is that it would be very dangerous (legally) for a public school to discipline a student for such speech/expression. Unless the student-athlete’s actions resulted in an all-out melee at a game (fights on the field and in the stands, etc.), I think most courts would rule that the school does not have the authority to limit such speech,” Green wrote.

“I know that may be a tough pill for a lot of school administrators (and other people) to swallow,” Green continued, “but I think that the best strategy for a school would be to avoid throwing gasoline on a very small fire and turning it into a huge conflagration by — if a student did engage in such a protest — simply stating that, ‘We as an institution respect the free speech rights of our students, even to express viewpoints with which we disagree, and we hope that all of our students become well-educated on the issues of the day and that they are politically active throughout their lives.'”

NOT TALKED ABOUT

Skowhegan head football coach Matthew Friedman said he has not talked about the issue with his team, and that’s by design.

“Mostly because I was curious to see if any players were going to approach me about it and ask me anything specific. My philosophy would be that if I had a player who chose not to stand for the national anthem, the first thing I would do is ask them what their reasoning was. Just because I want to make sure if somebody is going to protest, that they understand why they are,” Friedman said. “That being said, we have the right to protest under the First Amendment of our Constitution. I would not have any problem with anybody that chose to do it, but I would want them to at least hopefully be able to explain why they were doing it.”

Cony head coach B.L. Lippert echoed Friedman’s sentiments.

“If they know why they’re doing it and they have a reason for doing it, I don’t think I’d have any problem with that. If it were something that they were just doing to draw attention to themselves and away from the anthem or the flag, that might be something we address as a team,” Lippert said. “As long as it’s well-founded and well thought out, I don’t have much of a concern. I’d probably speak to them after the game to get a rationale for why they did it … There’s other ways to draw attention to that issue, but certainly Colin Kaepernick’s raised awareness for an issue that probably needs a spotlight on it a little bit more.”

In central Maine, coaches and athletes generally agree that what’s important is Kaepernick’s right to protest, whether or not they agree with his stance. The same would be said if the choice to protest was made by one of their players or teammates.

“We’re thinking if one of the kids decided to do something like that, that at least they’d approach us and let us know what they were going to do,” Winthrop/Monmouth head coach Dave St. Hilaire said. “But we certainly haven’t had anyone ask, and we’re not going to bring it up. I don’t know. I can’t see us saying no to the kid, obviously, after some different things that happened. A kid can choose to do what he wants. We’re not going to look down on him or anything for what he chooses to do. So far, no one’s expressed that interest.”

“I think everyone realizes that it’s his right to do it, but some people obviously don’t think he should be doing it and they don’t like the way he’s going about it,” Winthrop/Monmouth left tackle Ryan Hafford said. “The way I’ve always thought is you stand for the national anthem, and lots of people believe that, but he’s different and he has different thoughts. It’s what he believes he should do.”

FOLLOW THE LAW

Sean Cummings, a senior offensive lineman and linebacker at Cony, said he acknowledges Kaepernick’s right to protest by kneeling through the anthem, but he doesn’t like the action.

“Everyone has a right to do it. I don’t agree with it, but we all have a right to do it. Freedom of speech, but I don’t agree with it at all,” Cummings said. “I respect people’s right to free speech, but I don’t respect (kneeling for the anthem). My family has a lot of military, and I just don’t have any respect for it.”

The issue of respect for the national anthem and flag reached Maine earlier this month, when South Portland High School athletic director Todd Livingston used the school’s athletic department Twitter account to share federal national anthem code and guidelines. Livington said his tweets were not in reference to the Kaepernick situation, but just trying to promote the school’s core covenants of respect, excellence and tradition.

Area athletic directors say they will follow the law and Green’s advice, if the time comes when a student chooses to protest the anthem in a fashion similar to Kaepernick.

“Our stance is that we will follow the law. What the law says, we’ll do. Everybody has a lot of opinions on it, we know that. You can get 10 people in a room and get 10 different opinions. But our stance, and what we communicated to our coaches, is that we will follow the law,” Cony athletic director Paul Vachon said.

Added Messalonskee athletic director Tom Hill: “Hopefully, it can be an educational thing. Hopefully, it’s another part of the puzzle of learning lessons through athletics.”

Sports Editor Bill Stewart and staff writer Drew Bonifant contributed to this report.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM


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