Mendocino High basketball players wore “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts to warm up for a tournament at Fort Bragg High School in northern California, writes Coach Brown. Players were told they’d be expelled from the tournament if they wore the shirts again.
“All the boys but one chose to ditch the shirts and play in the tournament,” writes Brown, who teaches and coaches at nearby Ukiah High. Half of girls said no, leaving the Mendocino girls team with only five players. They quit the tournament.
Fort Bragg is especially sensitive about the issue because a deputy sheriff, Ricky Del Fiorentino, was killed earlier in 2014 by a criminal, writes Coach Brown. The officer has been a mentor and coach at the high school.
Nonetheless, “high school students have the right to political speech at public school events,” such as school basketball games, writes Brown.
If he’d been the coach, he’d have made it a “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 all choose those consequences, we forfeit. That simple. Political protest has consequences.
In a belated recognition of free-speech rights, Fort Bragg announced the tournament will not prohibit players from “wearing an expressive T-shirt during warm-ups” or regulate spectators’ T-shirt messages, reports the Fort Bragg Advocate News. “However, student athletes must wear their designated uniforms during the game.”
The students and their community supporters should “be proud of the young adults not only trying to raise awareness of current events but also for demanding their Constitutional being upheld,” writes Coach Brown.
Awareness isn’t high in the north country. When Mendocino High’s girls’ team first wore the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts before the Fort Bragg tournament, their coach, Caedyn Feehan “didn’t even know what it meant.” She “thought it was a joke about how I had conditioned them so hard,” Feehan told the Advocate News. “None of the administrators knew what it was.”