On December 16, the Mendocino High girls and boys teams wore the “I Can’t Breathe” shirts in their warm-ups at Fort Bragg High School. Mendocino was then told that it was expelled from Fort Bragg’s Tournament, and then reinstated as long as the players didn’t wear the shirts. All the boys but one chose to ditch the shirts and play in the tournament. About half of girls said no thus leaving the Mendocino girls team with only five players and they pulled out of the tournament. In summation, Fort Bragg High School removed another high school from its tournament due to political speech expressed by its athletes.
Two things about this issue.
First, a Mendocino County sheriff named Ricky Del Fiorentino was killed earlier in 2014 by a man who committed multiple crimes in Oregon and was confronted just north of Fort Bragg. The officer, in his off time, made massive contributions to Fort Bragg High School with his time and energy as a mentor and coach.
Second, I know the Fort Bragg coaching staff and have known them for awhile. They are good people and have teams that act like gentlemen at our tournament, which they have attended for years.
But even with being aware of both those things I can't say I agree with how Fort Bragg High School has handled this incident. High school students have the right to political speech at public school events, that much is very well documented in Tinker vs. Des Moines. High school basketball games are public school events. Enough said. To censor the entire team, or one student, from expressing that political statement is wrong. Having young men and women avoid be forced to avoid critical thinking is wrong. Having our next generation be told that silence is the consequence to people being offended by politics is wrong. And telling the youth of this country that their voice is irrelevant because they are youth is flat...out...wrong.
What would I have done?
As the coach of the players I would have seen this as a grand teachable moment. I would talk to the players about their choices, social and political, and make sure that they have a good comprehension about not only what might happen but about the event that they are protesting. I would talk to them about why Fort Bragg is sensitive about the subject and why the choice that they make might have unintended consequences. Then I would let them make a choice. Now, if they warm up in the "I Can't Breathe" t-shirts then they break our uniform policy and don't play that game. On my team if you forget a part of your jersey, you don't play. If they choose to wear the shirts they are breaking a team policy and there are consequences to that. If they all choose those consequences, we forfeit. That simple. Political protest has consequences.
But people seem to forget that regardless of disagreement or offensive content, the kids have rights that are protected by the Constitution. And the amazing thing is that members of both Mendocino and Fort Bragg are brazenly ignoring that fact. The commentary coming out of both Mendocino High and Fort Bragg is flat out frightening. This was a message from Mendocino High’s Booster President, well former president now, Douna Scramaglia:
Please accept this as my official letter of resignation from Club Cardinal.
It has become apparent to me this past week that my vision of what Club Cardinal is and what it has become does not align with my personal political views which should never come in to play within our organization if we had the proper leadership in our school administration.
I sent out a letter to our board and top school administrators on Monday and the only person to respond was Sonya. To me this shows a huge lack of respect for me and our Club as this issue has become a VERY volatile issue within our coastal community as well as nearby communities. To sit back and do nothing has done irreparable harm to many.
Of course we all have our right to Freedom of Speech but we also have to suffer the consequences of how others may react and weigh if the consequences of our actions outweigh the message we are trying to convey.
For me, I have always felt that our student athletes are a representative of our school and our community. The message or impression that they leave is a reflection of us all. I do not post political campaign signs at my business for one simple reason...it is not the opinion of all the people at Sport Chrysler Jeep Dodge.
I do not give money to political campaigns for fear of alienating certain groups. I try to be inclusive of all.
I can not be a part of an organization that makes political statements that leave others questioning my beliefs or values because I have association to the group. I have no problem with those students wearing political billboards anywhere else other than the court.
Well, so much for pillars of the educational community. The ex-president basically said that athletic events should be apolitical, except when it becomes about what Douna believes. Then it’s time to bail on the students because God forbid she be the president of booster club in which students have different political beliefs. Believe it or not a whole lot of people online are promoting the fact that the Mendocino students either:
A) Have the right to protest at any time with the exception being athletic contests because they are supposedly apolitical.
B) Have no rights to protest at all because they are at school – in Fort Bragg – are students – or whatever.
The official statement from Fort Bragg High School…man, I just don’t get it.
“After much discussion with the administration of Mendocino Unified, we decided that in order to protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament. We request that all participants respect our position in creating an atmosphere of political neutrality that is centered on friendly and healthy competition among young athletes. We are a small school district that simply does not have the resources to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, students and guests at the tournament should someone get upset and choose to act out.
We applaud Mendocino basketball players for paying attention to what is going on in the world around them, and being willing to take a position that is in line with their beliefs. However, given the recent incidents involving the death of a law enforcement officer in our community, we simply feel this issue is too emotionally charged to allow such a demonstration to happen in our tournament and be able to ensure the safety and well-being of all involved. We simply do not have the resources to protect those involved should the situation become aggressive or physical.
Every school district that is participating in the event has been asked by our Athletic Director to respect our request to maintain a politically neutral environment while participating in this tournament. We want all athletes who wish to participate to have the opportunity to do so, but as the hosts of the event we also need to ensure that we can protect the safety and well-being of everyone in attendance. The only way that is possible is to make this event politically neutral and ask that all involved put their personal beliefs about a situation that occurred on the other side of our country on hold for the short time they are participating. If a team cannot or is unwilling to do that, we have no other choice but to exclude them from the event."
Rebecca C. Walker
Fort Bragg High School
There is simply no basis at all for that response. None. There has been no history of violence or disturbance at Fort Bragg, and Mendocino wore those shirts at two other tournaments with no reaction at all. Nope, the Fort Bragg principal totally ignored one of the absolutely wonderful things about the American public school system; student free speech and expression is protected to some of the strongest and safest degrees of any institution in the world. We celebrate that kind of thing.
Removing that ability to protest is unconstitutional and I'm kind of big on that whole Constitution thing. Varsity basketball players are young men and women who make their own choices regarding politics and schools are the breeding ground for ideas that make our country a better place. We might not agree with the Mendocino High School varsity basketball teams' politics, and we might find the entire act offensive, but the students are citizens of the United States and are protected by the rights afforded by the Constitution. Let them learn.
And Ms. Walker, there is still time to get this right and mea culpa.
Hat tip to the Fort Bragg Advocate-News for the photos, and a strong “thank you” to MendocinoSportsPlus on Facebook for locking on to this story and not letting it go, even during Christmas. Yes, it is that important.