On Friday, Oct. 7, The Gwynn Park High School Yellow Jackets and Potomac Wolverines were slated to play a football game against each other.
Danny Hayes, Gwynn Park’s head coach, prepared his team to face a tough challenge from a one-loss team led by Potomac Head Coach Ronnie Crump.
There was nothing spectacular about the matchup. Warm-ups were the same as usual. Players were catching passes, stretching and doing various drills. Players from both sides who knew each other from off the field exchanged pleasantries per usual.
But then the national anthem started playing. After that, the question of what is and is not normal depends totally upon who one asks.
Four students from Gwynn Park’s ROTC squad marched on the field with the Maryland state flag and the United States flag in hand along with two rifles. Both sidelines stood at attention.
The silence broke with a slight clank of helmets. The Gwynn Park players all raised their helmets in the air in their right hands. Almost at the same time, each player on the Potomac sideline locked arms in their endzone as a declaration of their unity as a team.
Images both teams locking arms and fist/ helmet up pic.twitter.com/b3YVvtKJAr
— José Mauricio Umaña (@Jose_M_Umana) October 7, 2016
“We didn’t plan it at all,” Crump said.
Sports are typically black and white – especially when talking football. Two teams line up against each other, they compete using various strategies and at the end of the game, one team scores more points than the other and wins the game.
But sometimes, these games can hold more than just a winner and loser. People are complex and athletes are people. Sometimes people have causes they feel the need to stand for, and athletes are no different.
Political stances in sports are nothing new. But they weren’t always the norm, either. NFL players did not customarily stand for the National Anthem until 2009 according to a report from CSN New England. The NBA’s bylaws require players to stand on the court during the national anthem.
Since early September, when San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem during an NFL preseason game behind the killings of minorities in America, many athletes and coaches from different backgrounds have taken different stances on the issue.
The reaction has been a mixed bag so far, but the discussion on the subject and whether politics have a place in sports has been launched from what Kapernick did.
While that issue might be legitimate, Hayes said, kneeling or sitting during the national anthem does not really solve any issues. The flag “represents an ideal” for everyone, he said, and that ideal has to be respected because people die for it.
Ultimately, there are other issues that need to be addressed in better ways, Hayes said. For him, keeping religion strong with team culture is one of them.
It’s Saturday, October 15. The Gwynn Park Yellow Jackets are playing the Surrattsville Hornets — one of their main rivals because of their identical mascots.
At the start of the game, the Yellow Jackets show their patriotism with the traditional raising of their helmets during the anthem. After the anthem, there’s a loud cheer from the Gwynn Park sideline. At the center of it is Danny Hayes with the rest of his coaching staff.
Usually a player leads most huddles, but Gwynn Park’s coach of 25 years has his hand in everything his team does. As the huddle breaks, the bright yellow writing on his shirt is revealed. It reads “God has the final say!”
After a 35-15 win on the road against Surrattsville High School, the team bowed their heads and closed their eyes in their own endzone as Hayes led them in prayer. Business as usual for Gwynn Park.
“The school doesn’t want us to pray, but we do,” Hayes said. “We need to keep God in our lives. God is strength.”
Everyone may not believe in the same God, but prayer is uniform and helps the team stay together, Hayes said. The huddle is the same. And so long as team norms are not sacrificed for individual reasoning, players can say anything they want.
For Hayes, this has “nothing to do with politics.” Religion and belief is necessary for growth, he said. Respect for the flag shows respect for those who died for it. It’s all necessary, and whether it is accepted by others, it will continue.
Moe Stewart, a coach at Dunbar High School, said he and his team, coaches and players, are all different people and have different opinions about different things. Race, religion and other beliefs all come into the locker room and they are always open to talking about different things.
Just like Gywnn Park, Dunbar will pray after games. But unlike Gwynn Park, everyone is not always involved.
“We have Muslim kids on the team, and they don’t want to participate in our prayer,” he said. “Our team understands that.”
Everything does not have to be uniform, Stewart said, People are different. Whether a player wants to kneel or sit during the anthem or wants to pray differently, it’s their prerogative, he said.
Stewart served in the military for 11 years and was a police officer for more than 20 years. He became a coach because he wanted to help young men change their lives. Part of that, he said, is “allowing them to express their beliefs” and exercise rights others have earned for them.
It’s the spring of 2015, Ronnie Crump is accompanying a few of his seniors on a college visit along with four other coaches. Their destination is the University of Georgia.
Upon arriving at their hotel, the group is denied entry at a hotel despite having a reservation. Their room was given to an older white couple standing in line right before their eyes.
“It was clear racism,” Crump said. The police were subsequently called after he became visibly irate and the group moved a reservation at a hotel a few miles away.
But what Crump, 45, noticed about the situation was that outside of a coach that was the same age as him, no one else thought anything of the situation. Everyone else was 23 and under. They didn’t know what happened.
Since that day, Crump has always made it known to his players that they can confide in him about larger societal issues. They’ll talk as a team — bringing issues out in the open.
“We have to talk about this stuff. Everyone does, not just athletes.” Crump said.
Reggie Broddie, the CEO of Concerned Black Men National located in Washington, D.C., said today’s youth protest because “they won’t take the injustices previous generations did.”
Because of their platform, people in athletics are on ground other people love to see but will never experience, Broddie said. It should be used to start a conversation.
Crump agreed. If they want to, people in athletics can influence different cultures. Politics in sports is not the norm. But from what he has seen and learned as a head coach and as a man, speaking up on issues is not only a right, “it’s necessary if you want it to be.”