Members of the Fonda-Fultonville football take the field prior to its game against Hoosick Falls last Friday night. (Photo courtesy Gene Twardzik)
By ADAM SHINDER
A week ago tonight, the trend of athletes taking a knee as a sign of protest during the national anthem reached Section II high school football when a handful of players and one cheerleader from Niskayuna knelt during “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to the Silver Warriors’ game against Guilderland.
The next night, the Amsterdam Rugged Rams were in Averill Park for a game set to be televised across the Capital Region on Spectrum News. The night of the game, Greater Amsterdam School District Coordinator of Health, Physical Education and Athletics Stephen Nolan had a short discussion with the Rams about the nature of those protests — even though, he said, none of the players had planned to make any sort of demonstration.
“They didn’t plan on doing anything, other than business as usual,” Nolan said. “And that’s the message that I relayed to them.”
Nolan said he stressed to the Rams that, if they had a desire to protest social injustice and other issues, there were other, perhaps less controversial, outlets available to them.
“(I told them) if they really wanted to make a statement, if they really wanted to be proactive in their community, get their education and do things in their community that would raise their level and the community’s level of awareness,” Nolan said. “Be positive and proactive.”
It was business as usual for the Rams during the anthem. The team stood in a line, facing the flag, players holding their helmets under their left arm and with their right hand on their hearts.
Though there were reports of other demonstrations throughout Section II last weekend, including the Schenectady football team standing with arms linked during the anthem, there was no such drama for area squads. In fact, the Fonda-Fultonville team stormed onto John G. Boshart Field for its Friday night game against Hoosick Falls with one of its captains, Luke Neff, carrying an American flag as he led the team onto the turf.
Athletic directors from three other area schools with football teams — Fonda-Fultonville, Broadalbin-Perth and Canajoharie — did not respond to requests for comment.
Nolan was proud of the way the Amsterdam team conducted itself. In his discussion with the team, he made a point of going over the root of the anthem protests, which began when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the anthem during 2016 NFL preseason games as a protest against police violence and racial injustice.
Kaepernick, now a free agent, was joined by several other players across the NFL throughout 2016 and into 2017. The issue was inflamed further two weeks ago when President Donald Trump singled out the players during a rally for a Senate candidate in Alabama, sparking an even greater wave of protest and demonstration across the NFL the following weekend.
The debate has raged between those who believe players who take a knee are exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of expression and those who counter that to take a knee during the anthem is an affront to the flag, the United States and its military.
“I told them Colin Kaepernick’s original intent was not to dishonor a veteran or dishonor the flag, it was to show the inequality,” Nolan said. “I explained to them that there’s inequality between races, amongst races and it goes above and beyond what we’re doing. We want to be leaders in our community, and the way to do that is show respect for our nation’s flag and our veterans, continue business as usual and work hard to be the change and not just part of what’s a fad right now.”
There’s also the concern that high school players protesting during the anthem could bring undue criticism onto themselves from outside sources. When word first hit social media about the players from Niskayuna joining the protest, mudslinging quickly followed, including several posts with racial slurs.
“The people that aren’t cognizant, they see it only as a negative, so it’s a chance for them to put themselves in a negative spot,” Nolan said. “We just talked about being positive and doing things in a positive manner, and our team honors the flag, honors the veterans that we have. It was one quick conversation before the game, and that was all.”
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association issued a state Friday from Executive Director Robert Zayas regarding anthem protests.
“High school sports are a fabric of our great country, and honoring our freedoms with the playing of the national anthem prior to New York high school athletic competitions is an important event,” the statement read. “The ability to peacefully protest is a part of those said freedoms, and a right that some high school student-athletes in the state have exercised. Undoubtedly, other players, coaches and fans may follow suit. It is important to remember that high school sports are an extension of the classroom. It is our sincere hope that these actions generate meaningful discussion among the high school communities as a whole, as opposed to unilateral praise or condemnation.”
In this area, everything was, as Nolan said, business as usual.