A former Green Bay Packer with seven years of high school coaching experience, Joey Thomas knows football. But he didn’t know the controversy he’d face last season when players on his Garfield High School team opted to drop to one knee during the national anthem to protest social injustice.
Players continued the protest this season by locking arms instead of “taking a knee,” but their intent was unchanged, Thomas says. The resulting controversy hasn’t died down, garnering national media attention after Thomas received death threats, had his tires slashed and decided to move his family to a different neighborhood.
Though Thomas took heat as the team’s leader, players led the charge themselves after learning about pro football players’ national anthem protests, which have sparked lengthy discussions at home and at school.
“It was about equality, and that means different things for everyone. For some, it’s being treated as an equal in the classroom,” Thomas says.
After an exceptionally challenging year, Thomas says he’d support his players’ expression of protest again because their actions started a vital dialogue; players met with local police officers in October 2016 to learn more about social justice issues facing Seattle.
“Our students are so sharp, so aware, and this came out of their day-to-day experiences,” he says. “Great coaches need to relate to their players. It’s about meeting them where they are and caring about what’s going on in their lives.”
It would have been easier not to do it, he says, but it was the right thing to do. “It made us stronger as a football family.”
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