It was as a member of the San Francisco 49ers in 2016 that NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick made kneeling during the national anthem at sporting events a form of social protest.
Though it may be the reason the two-time Pro Bowl selection is without a contract for 2017, the act is being emulated by a growing number of athletes both professional and amateur. Sunday, it was imitated by 8-year-old youth league football players from Cahokia.
In past meetings, high school athletic directors and administrators from Southwestern Conference schools discussed the possibility that one of their athletes would someday want to join the demonstration.
They arrived at no league-wide policy — “If anybody can come with a good sound way to deal with this that pleases everyone, they should let us know,” said SWC commissioner Bill Schmidt — but most agree there is only one option.
“I think we all hope they’ll stand for the national anthem, but we have to support the students and their right to free speech,” said Mark Larsen, athletic director at Belleville East.
In the Southwestern Conference — which includes Belleville East, West, Collinsville, East St. Louis, Edwardsville, Granite City and O’Fallon — it’s long been tradition that football teams wait out “The Star-Spangled Banner” in their locker rooms.
Conference officials plan to discuss the issue again ahead of the upcoming winter sports season, Schmidt said.
“Not speaking as a commissioner, but as a government and social studies teacher, I don’t see how you can even go about creating a policy,” he said. “It’s not against the law.”
Athletic directors Lee Meyer, of Belleville West, and Leonard Manley, of East St. Louis, echoed Schmidt and Larsen. They say the decision to stand for the national anthem is individual and has to be protected as a constitutional right.
Social media, however, doesn’t necessarily agree.
Since the News-Democrat posted on Facebook its article about Cahokia youth-league players kneeling through the national anthem prior to a game in Belleville, more than 900 readers weighed in with comments.
Many supported coach Orlando “Doc” Gooden and the parents of his 8-year-old players. Many others argued that kneeling is unpatriotic and disrespectful to veterans and those who died while serving in the military. They think the Junior Comanches should be expelled from the Tri-County Conference and that Gooden should be removed from his volunteer position.
“They have every right to their opinions, but it’s the very same right the student athletes have,” Schmidt said. “We have to respect the rights of both sides to express their views.”
Student athletes at Althoff Catholic High School stand for both the national anthem and pregame prayer, but more as a matter of tradition than policy, said Athletic Director Greg Lieb.
“We haven’t had to confront it, so, to be honest, I don’t know that we’ve thought about it,” he said.
East St. Louis AD Leonard Manley, one of two black athletic directors in the Southwestern Conference, said he’s been on both sides of the argument. He admits “without apology” that there was a time he chose to not stand and face the American flag.
But when he became a head coach and, later, an administrator, Manley decided he had to set a different example.
“I have kids that are following me,” he said. “Whatever my feelings are, I don’t want to poison their minds with it, so I started standing for the flag.
“I’m from the South, so I grew up in the midst of the same things people are protesting against, and I have thoughts and perspectives about what America is. I have to deal with those hurdles I run into in life, and I hope to deal with them in a way that is professional and dignified and does not tarnish me as a man, or tarnish my family and the kids that I’m leading.”
Both Manley and O’Fallon High School Athletic Director Todd Moeller said the issue hasn’t been addressed with the athletes, but it will be if and when the students lead the discussion.
“Our kids haven’t addressed it, and they haven’t shown us (an opinion) one way or the other,” Manley said. “Until they come to me or to the coaches, we’ll continue to do what we’ve always done, which is to stand and face the flag.
“Really, I think we’re making too much of this.”