The Camden Diocese circulated an email Sept. 2 to its high schools – Camden Catholic, Paul VI, Gloucester Catholic, St. Joseph, Wildwood Catholic and Holy Spirit – to announce that any student-athletes who kneel for the national anthem will be subject to a two-game suspension.
It also explained that further demonstrations would result in dismissal from the school attended.
Superintendent Mary P. Boyle addressed the letter to school presidents, principals, athletic directors and coaches.
"In light of the recent controversy regarding the NFL player’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem, I seek to clarify the position of the Office of Catholic Schools," Boyle wrote. "... Our schools are founded on the teaching of respect and honor; respect and honor for God, country and duly appointed authority.
"It is expected that our administration and coaches as well as our athletes will show respect during prayer, pledges and the playing or singing of the National Anthem. ... We are not public institutions and free speech in all of its demonstrations, including protests is not a guaranteed right. Failure to demonstrate appropriate respect will result in suspension from play (2 games) or dismissal from the team for subsequent offenses."
Paul VI first-year head coach Phil Brunozzi said the diocese's policy was communicated to all Eagles fall sports coaches in a meeting last week.
Two days prior to that meeting, Brunozzi had already made sure his team had established a routine for the pregame ritual.
"In anticipation of the anthem, because it is a hot-button subject right now, about a week ago we rehearsed our procedure as a team,” Brunozzi said. “It was part of a walk-through, exactly what everyone does – standing on the hash, helmet in left hand ... I didn't know it was going to be brought up in the fall meeting.
“We weren't going to let anyone do their own thing. For us, we already covered it. I actually got a few texts and emails from parents on how we looked. It was pretty solid. Everyone was in the right formation, very uniform.”
Kelly Francis, in his 18th year as president of the NAACP's Camden County Branch, disagreed with the idea of suspensions for a free-speech act.
"The president of the United States has stated (those who kneel) have a constitutional right to protest if they want to," Francis said. "I don’t know why the diocese thinks they can go against the Constitution.
"They’re treading on dangerous ground, especially being a religious institution."
Boyle's mandate went out to schools as a preventative measure for the first full week of high school sports. It came to public light Monday, two days after Woodrow Wilson coach Preston Brown and all but two members of his football team knelt before a game against Highland as the anthem played.
Saturday evening, the Camden City School District stood behind the Tigers’ gesture as a form of free speech.
The district released a statement through spokesperson Brendan Lowe.
“The District supports standing for the flag, but this is a personal issue, and we strongly respect our students’ experiences and their exercising our country’s First Amendment rights,” it read. “Whether our students choose to stand, kneel, or otherwise, we’re proud of their engagement with what is more broadly a very important social justice issue.”
Bishop Eustace coach Rob Cormier – whose school is not within the diocese, as it is a private parochial institution – admitted personal disappointment with his division rivals’ display.
“I understand people feel the need to make a statement,” said Cormier, who’s worked in the federal government for the past 18 years. “But you also have to remember that it’s about the people who served this country, the veterans. It’s not about political views, but about the men and women who serve, who have served and those who died serving the country.
“… Right now we’re in a situation in this country where some people are anti-government, anti-police. I want to see kids exposed to patriotism and not making some statement when they’re 15 years old and impressionable.”
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit for "The Star Spangled Banner" before a preseason game on Aug. 26 sparked a national discussion.
Kaepernick, who is biracial, took a knee before the team’s next preseason contest and has done so ever since. Other NFL players have joined in with his demonstration.
On Sunday, some raised a fist – a la 1968 U.S. Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith. The Seattle Seahawks locked arms and stood before their game against the Miami Dolphins. They were lined up in an alternating order of white-black-white-black, etc.
Derrick Levine, Camden Catholic’s first-year athletic director who is an African-American, did not wish to speak on the diocese’s decision.
“I do not have a comment on that,” he said Monday afternoon.
Levine is the only athletic director of the schools included that could be reached for comment.
On the public school side, Washington Township’s Kevin Murphy said his school district had given no ultimatum about the possible protest.
“I have not been advised by my administration but we expect our student-athletes and coaches would honor our country and our flag during the playing of the national anthem," Murphy said. “We feel very strongly about that.”
CAMDEN DIOCESE'S LETTER
In light of the recent controversy regarding the NFL player’s refusal to stand for the National Anthem, I seek to clarify the position of the Office of Catholic Schools. I ask that this be communicated to those listed above.
Our schools are founded on the teaching of respect and honor; respect and honor for God, country and duly appointed authority.
It is expected that our administration and coaches as well as our athletes will show respect during prayer, pledges and the playing or singing of the National Anthem.
The best approach is helping our young people understand that blood was sacrificed so that we all can enjoy the gifts of our faith and our country.
However, let me be clear. We are not public institutions and free speech in all of its demonstrations, including protests is not a guaranteed right.
Failure to demonstrate appropriate respect, will result in suspension from play (2 games) or dismissal from the team for subsequent offenses.