“… the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”
This week, Preston Brown, the coach at Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, chose to protest conditions in Camden schools, and oppression more widely, by kneeling during the national anthem. And many of his players followed suit.
The faux outrage has started, and it comes with a twist. Erasure. The first instinct of writer Phil Anastasia is to dismiss the contributions of high schoolers choosing to protest, telling them they are just children. In a column disguised as advice to Coach Brown, Anastasia writes:
I wish he would have told his players — and the cheerleaders and team managers and ball boys — to stand along the sideline for the national anthem. (…)
I wish he would have told them that he is older than them and much more equipped make such an important decision. (…)
I wish he would have told them that he’s a grown man and that they are teenagers. (…)
I wish he would have told them that things are complicated, that the world is filled with all sorts of nuances and shades of gray and that they have not lived long enough to fully appreciate that. (…)
I wish he would have told them they weren’t ready to do that yet, because they are still children.
Notice how Anastasia ignores the agency of youth and hides it behind “advice” to Preston Brown. Notice how he assumes students could not be making a mature choice to protest. Notice how he erases their action by barely mentioning the reasons they chose to protest, then he erases the protest of their coach by making it about his supposed failure as a mentor (not about the issue Preston Brown or the players were trying to hard to highlight). Phil Anastasia saw a remarkable thing — a sports team taking civic action in protest of their conditions and the conditions in their country — and all he could think to do was lecture.Photo by Yong Kim, Staff Photographer Philly.com
So let’s be thankful that it is Preston Brown coaching the Woodrow Wilson Tigers not Phil Anastasia. Because there’s nothing high schoolers enjoy more than being told their voice doesn’t matter, that they are children, and that they should be patronized. Let’s be grateful for Coach Brown, who chose to take the brunt of the criticism for the protest while also treating his players like adults and giving them the choice of kneeling or standing. Most coaches wouldn’t have that courage — they’d focus on the game and call the rest a “distraction.” They would hide behind cliches that their jobs were about “winning.” It’s easier for a coach to punt on these issues than to stand up, and it’s easier for players to stand up than to kneel.
That’s why Camden students need more men like Coach Brown. Coach Brown stood up for what he believed in, took pressure off his players, and treated teenagers with respect. He is a true educator. Phil Anastasia acknowledged that “I haven’t walked a mile in Preston Brown’s shoes” then felt entitled enough to write a condescending advice column that ended with the words, “I wish he would have told them they weren’t ready to do that yet, because they are still children. I wish he would have told them to stand along the line during the song and then go play football.” He assumed his opinion was more important than the students’ voices, and that playing a game was more important than standing up for what you believe in.
Shut up and play football is not the lesson we want to teach our students of color, especially when they are finding voices to advocate for their community. Telling those students they are “still children” when they take risks that could affect their future and their recruitment belittles the gravity of their decision. It actively erases their voices and their protest. These students (and their coach) took this risk for something they believed in. They dropped to their knee on principle. Our first instinct when this happens needs to be to listen, not to lecture.