8-year-old Cahokia football players take a knee for national anthem

Watch as 8-year-old Cahokia football players kneel during National Anthem

Members of the Junior Comanches youth football team turned their back on the American flag and knelt during the playing of the National Anthem prior to a game on Sept. 17.
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Members of the Junior Comanches youth football team turned their back on the American flag and knelt during the playing of the National Anthem prior to a game on Sept. 17.

As protesters assembled in the streets of St. Louis, a team of youth football players staged their own demonstration against the verdict in the trial of former police officer Jason Stockley.

Members of the Junior Comanches youth football team knelt during the playing of the national anthem prior to a game at Belleville’s Citizens Park Sunday.

Stockley was found not guilty of first-degree murder by a St. Louis circuit judge in the shooting death of Anthony Lamar Smith, on Dec. 20, 2011. Organized demonstrations — some of which turned toward violence and vandalism in the evening hours — are continuing into a fourth day.

Orlando “Doc” Gooden, the Junior Commanches coach, said the pregame gesture was initiated by his discussion with the young players during a practice last week. Parents in attendance supported the idea.

“One of the kids brought it up and asked, ‘What’s going on in St. Louis? Why are they demonstrating and rioting?’” Gooden said. “He’s just an 8-year-old baby and he’s asking me why they are doing it. I felt it was a teaching opportunity. As a coach and adult, it’s your role to protect those that are weaker and to enlighten them when you can.”

While the coach and his team have received plenty of support in social media, others questioned whether the decision to protest belonged in the hands of 8-year-olds. Some suggested the Junior Commanches be expelled from the Tri-County League.

In social media, the backlash against Gooden and the Junior Commanches’ demonstration has been harsh, with some calling for the organization to be expelled from the Tri-County League.

“I know some of the people talk and speak as if I told the kids to turn around and that. I didn’t,” Gooden said. “They brought up the subject and led the discussion. I feel like once a child shows interest in a topic, you have to talk to them and teach them what you can.

“I told them kneeling is a show of respect, not for those who broke boundaries — I support only peaceful protest — but for the innocent lives that have been touched by injustice.”

Gooden is a 2001 graduate of Cahokia High School, where he starred at running back on the Comanches’ 10-1 playoff team. He has since received a bachelor’s degree in recreation and sports management from Indiana State University.

According to his Facebook page, he has worked for St. Anthony’s Medical Center and Don Bosco Children’s Center as a Residential Treatment Specialist, but said by phone Monday that he wants to keep his current employer clear of any potential controversy.

As a member of the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick made kneeling during the “Star-Spangled Banner” a form of protest against social injustice. Other players have emulated him.

Darren Goodwin, who says he’s coached youth football for 13 years and has been a long-time friend of Gooden, says the protest was not forced on the 8-year-old players.

“That’s not what Orlando is all about. He would not make the kids do something they didn’t want to do or were not comfortable doing,” Goodwin said.

Either way, he says the backlash the coach and team has received has gone too far.

“People don’t know that the kneeling is a sign of respect for those you are mourning, and I think they need to be made aware of what it means,” Goodwin said. “Everybody has the same First Amendment right to free speech and protest. The comments directed toward the coaches and the kids isn’t fair, I don’t think. Then again, we don’t always deal with fairness.”

Cahokia is a village of about 14,000 residents, located directly across the Mississippi River from south St. Louis. Stockley is a graduate of Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville.

Todd Eschman: 618-239-2540, @tceschman