Thursday happened to be Military Appreciation Night at Beaufort High, and neither the Eagles nor visiting May River broke rank as the national anthem was played in the minutes before their football game.
No kneeling. No sitting on the bench behind their teammates. Other than some absent-minded milling about on the outer concourse, it was the same way outside the playing field.
In a locale where the Bible Belt intersects with a strong military presence, that really isn’t a surprise. To date, the anthem protests of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have not appeared at Lowcountry high schools.
That hasn’t been the case elsewhere, though, as prep athletes from New Jersey to Alabama to Iowa to Washington have taken a knee as a way to protest racial injustice. If nothing else, it has led administrators here to consider how to react to any such action.
On Thursday, the Beaufort County School District formalized a policy that allows for such symbolic expression, as long as it doesn’t disrupt other students or activities. Jasper County is still in the discussion stages, but may soon follow suit.
“We want to have a stance,” Jasper County athletics director Michael Jordan said. “What Beaufort County is doing is a way that allows people to express themselves, but not infringe on anybody else’s freedom of speech.”
That’s in line with a 1969 Supreme Court ruling that said public school students do not shed their rights to free speech “at the schoolhouse gate.” That case involved Vietnam War protests.
“It hasn’t been an issue for us here in Beaufort County,” said Gregory McCord, the district’s chief auxiliary services officer. “If there are cases, I’m not aware of any.”
Asked if kneeling during the anthem might be considered a disruptive act, in light of how others might react, McCord said: “It would not be considered disruptive unless they made it disruptive. Just taking a knee is not a disruptive act.”
The matter is less distinct at the area’s private schools, which are free to make their own rules. In general, ADs said any instances would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“Our plan right now is to have our coaches talk to our players about the issue,” said John Paul II athletics director Matt Dakolios, adding that he asked football coach Kevin Wald to talk with his team before Friday night’s game.
“Our coaches know our players and our players respect our coaches. If there was ever a player that was thinking about a protest, I believe that would be a conversation ahead of time. And it’d be something we would certainly speak to.”
Both Hilton Head Prep’s Rich Basirico and Hilton Head Christian’s Kenny Conroy indicated they don’t anticipate any such instances. Basirico noted that Prep’s Upper School conducts a general assembly twice a week in which the Pledge of Allegiance is recited, and he can’t recall any resistance over the years.
“Our administration has talked about what would happen if someone wasn’t standing for the pledge,” Basirico said. “We’ve said we would address it with that individual.”
Some places elsewhere have taken a harder line, ordering suspensions for those in kneel-down protest. One Massachusetts player said he was told he would be suspended for a protest last weekend, only for school officials to walk that back.
Catholic schools in the Philadelphia area have told their athletes that those who do not stand for the anthem will be suspended — two games for a first offense, up to a season for a second.
Mary Boyle, superintendent for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Camden, N.J., stated in a letter that Catholic schools “are not public institutions and free speech in all of its demonstrations, including protests, is not a guaranteed right.”
John Paul II reports to the Charleston diocese, which has not issued such a ruling. If it did, though, “We would follow it without question,” Dakolios said.
Anthem protocol has been a hot-button topic for nearly a month now, since Kaepernick was noticed sitting on the bench during its playing during the NFL preseason. The quarterback has said he was sitting out to protest racial injustice, particularly police killings in the black community.
Other NFL players have since joined the movement, most by taking a knee during the anthem. A few have raised fists during its playing, reminiscent of the “black power” salutes of John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.
Another participant has been soccer player Megan Rapinoe, part of the U.S. team that captured last year’s Women’s World Cup and an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights.
“I can assure you that our student-athletes know about it because it’s one of the hottest things going on in the media,” Jordan said. “And now they’re speculating on what’s going to happen once the NBA season starts.”
Basirico said: “I’m not surprised that it’s filtered down to the high schools. Kids are watching this, and I think it’s a poor message.”
Count Basirico among those who believe protesting the anthem is more of an insult to the freedoms for which thousands of Americans died than a call for social change.
“There are some police that are killing people in this country,” he said, “but let’s band together to find a way to stop that. Let’s not protest against our flag.”
Saturday found Basirico attending a veteran’s funeral, where he was struck by the contrast between that service and Kaepernick’s actions.
“If anyone’s in doubt about that the flag stands for, go to a veteran’s funeral,” Basirico said. “They would get the message without a word being said.”
Jordan, a black man and son of a Navy veteran, also sees the anthem as a manner to respect those who have protected the freedoms that allow him to raise his family and pursue a job he loves. But he also sees a need to get both sides to understand the perceptions at hand.
“It’s about people sitting and listening to people being real,” he said. “A lot of times when we have those discussions, it’s just back-and-forth and nobody hears a word. That’s the last thing we need.”