The decision of more than 200 National Football League players on Sunday to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” or to stay in the locker room during the national anthem has sparked discussion of the issue across Maine’s playing fields.
Those protests, ignited last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, were sparked by the athletes’ desire to point out racial inequality in the United States.
On Monday, nine members of the girls soccer team at Traip Academy in Kittery also knelt to support the same cause.
Many Maine coaches, athletes and administrators appear to respect the right to perform those actions. The question is more the timing of the demonstrations.
“I’d call it a little bit silly, but there are better methods to get their point across,” said Hampden Academy senior football player Marcus Dunn, who doesn’t want to judge the protesters, even though their actions are viewed by some as disrespectful to the military.
“I see why [military personnel] take it that way, because they put their lives on the line for the people back home here, but at the end of the day it is their right to protest,” he added.
Dunn’s mother, Diane Dunn, is a 30-year military veteran who is the chief of staff for the Maine Army National Guard.
“She understands that it’s their right and that’s what she fought for,” Marcus said.
“What bothers her — and we’re on the same page — is why they’re using the [national] anthem to protest.”
Since last season, when the anthem is played on an adjacent field, Hampden Academy football players stop practice, remove their helmets, face the flag and stand quietly.
“It’s really awesome,” said Dunn.
University of Maine women’s soccer coach Scott Atherley said he believes in freedom of speech and standing up for what one believes in.
“In the case of athletes taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem, I think there are alternative but equally impactful platforms for self-expression,” he said.
“The playing of and standing for the national anthem prior to athletics competition is a time-honored custom in our country. I think it is important to respectfully honor and preserve such a tradition,” added Atherley, who said none of his players have approached him about the issue.
Lee Academy athletic director and three-sport head coach Randy Harris said he doesn’t have a problem with people protesting — as long as it’s peaceful.
“You shouldn’t judge someone unless you’ve walked in their shoes,” said Harris. “I’m from predominantly white, rural Maine. So my views are a little different. I’ve never had issues [with racism].”
Maine has the nation’s highest percentage of white residents (94.8 percent), according to 2016 U.S. Census.
The Maine Principals’ Association, which oversees high school athletics in Maine, chooses not to interject itself into issues such as the anthem controversy. However, staff members did discuss it last year with members of the athletic administrators’ association and a national attorney after Kaepernick was the first to kneel.
“This is the type of situation where we believe that every school, every community, needs to have its own conversation because how this might be viewed in one part of the state might be viewed dramatically different in another part of the state,” said MPA Executive Director Dick Durost.
“I think it’s one of those things that is being talked about with a lot of teams and a lot of communities right now,” he added.
UMaine baseball coach Nick Derba supports the right of the athletes to band together for a common cause.
“It was really good to see the NFL showing some solidarity. Professional athletes have a right to express themselves in that manner,” said Derba.
His paternal grandfather, Dominic Dell’Erba, fought for the Allies in Italy during World War I before emigrating to the United States.
“For me, personally, I don’t feel comfortable taking a knee or doing something different because a lot of people died so I could have the opportunity to coach baseball,” he said.
He believes college athletes study and play in a different environment and should be encouraged to discuss such situations — without taking any overt action.
“College athletes aren’t here to be on the political forefront. They are here to go to school,” Derba said.
UMaine softball coach Mike Coutts said living in a predominantly white state shields most Mainers from being exposed to the racial issues that occur in urban environments. He neither condones nor condemns the protests, and intends to discuss the issues with his players this week.
“It’s a great time to teach them about situations like this and see what they feel about it,” said Coutts, who believes in respecting the flag.
“To me, the flag represents people who have fought for our freedoms so that I can coach and live in a free country,” he added.
That sentiment resonates with John Bapst High School senior J.J. Higgins, whose grandfather fought in World War II.
“They’re welcome to protest, but I just don’t think they should do it through the national anthem and the flag because there are a lot of military people who fight their lives for the flag and to keep our country safe,” he said.
Senior teammate Logan Dempsey said that even if some of his teammates took a knee at their upcoming game, he would respect their choice.
“Do I agree with it? No. But I’m not going to bash anyone for it,” he said.
The issue has not been discussed among John Bapst football players and coaches.
“We will absolutely support our student-athletes’ right to express their views in a peaceful protesting manner if they see fit, but it has not come up as of yet,” said Dan O’Connell, John Bapst’s athletic administrator and head football coach.
Hampden Academy football coach Shane Rogers did not wish to comment on the situation and Brewer athletic administrator David Utterback simply urged open communication at his school.
“I think you’d want to encourage kids to speak to their adult supervisors, and certainly myself, if they have questions about why these people are doing that and what should their reaction be if they wanted to do the same thing,” he said.