One week ago, National Football League stadiums were epicenters on one of the nation’s biggest fault-lines.
Friday, tremors involving race relations and respect for one of the nation’s most cherished symbols rippled across McKenzie Stadium.
As The Star Spangled Banner was sung, five players on the Evergreen High School football team kneeled.
On the other sideline, at least three players on the Prairie High School team kept their fists aloft during the anthem.
Like dozens of NFL players who did so last Sunday, those high school players at McKenzie viewed their protest as a repudiation of racial inequality, police brutality and comments by President Donald Trump, who called players who protest during the anthem “sons of bitches.”
“It’s just what we believe in, with what’s going on in America right now,” said Prairie sophomore A.J. Dixson, who raised his fist during the anthem. “We believe it’s right to do that right now.”
When asked why specific message or cause he was conveying, Dixson replied “that black lives matter, really.”
The protest didn’t sit well with Logan Nicholson, an Evergreen senior who sang The Star Spangled Banner on Friday.
When he saw his classmates kneeling, his heart dropped. Then his frustration rose.
“It’s unfortunate to me that the symbolism of the flag and the anthem is not understood by so many,” Nicholson said. “Too many people have sacrificed and died to wave that flag and sing the anthem as a proud recognition of our independence and liberty.”
Nicholson respects his classmates’ right to protest and strive for change. But he wishes they would in turn respect those who sing in honor of sacrifices made for the nation.
“The way to make a difference is not through disrespecting such a symbol,” he said. “Embrace active change. Get involved in your community. Be kind to your neighbor. Practice equality and the values you support in your own life.”
Four players on the Fort Vancouver football team also kneeled during the national anthem before their game against Kelso at Kiggins Bowl.
Shawn Mintah, who stood but locked arms with kneeling players, said they want to send a message of unity, not disrespect.
“We want to show we’re not standing for what’s going on right now in America,” Mintah said.
Darius Jackson, one of the Fort players who kneeled, said his older brother was shot by police a year and a half ago.
“I do it for my brother,” Jackson said, “and I do it for my dad and mom. I plan on doing it every game.”
The Fort players said their decision was supported by the team’s coaching staff.
Back at McKenzie, Evergreen head coach Terry Hyde said he was not aware some of his players planned to kneel. He chose not to interject himself into the debate.
“I had no idea and I have no opinion on that,” Hyde said. “I have my personal opinion, but I’m going to keep it to myself. Our district is clear. We have no position on that. My official position is that we have no position.”
When politics becomes interjected in sports, it strikes a chord. That is because sports is supposed to be a sanctuary, a place to escape from real-life troubles and stresses.
That is true with high school sports. But high school sports are also an extension of the classroom. Fields, gyms and diamonds are places where teenagers learn lifelong lessons about teamwork, hard work and respect.
And that’s what I hope becomes of this, an opportunity to learn.
I hope the athletes who kneeled did so with true conviction, and not just because pro athletes did so on television. I hope they back up their on-field protest with concrete action to help us build a better community.
I hope the athletes don’t take for granted their right to free speech. But I also hope they take time to respectfully listen to people like Nicholson, for whom the flag and anthem hold a special place.
On the other hand, I hope those who rush to condemn those protests actually look at why black athletes feel compelled to act. Go beyond jingoistic talking points. Listen to those whose upbringing, culture and life experience are different than yours, even if you disagree.
This Sunday, many NFL players will lock arms during the national anthem as a show of unity.
We can also have unity here in Clark County, but only with respect and empathy for all.
Micah Rice is The Columbian’s sports editor. Reach him at 360-735-4548, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @col_mrice.