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Coaches of a South Jersey football team were suspended for kneeling during the national anthem. Now people are threatening to quit the league

The little league football scene shows how racial reckonings have infiltrated every corner of the country, even youth sports, and how the coronavirus has brought it all to a head.

Wearing a team shirt with BLACK LIVES MATTER on the back, Gibbstown sophomore football team coach Rashad Thomas, and the rest of the team, say a prayer before their game against Pennsville at the Gibbstown Youth Football Field in Gibbstown, N.J. on Oct. 17, 2020.
Wearing a team shirt with BLACK LIVES MATTER on the back, Gibbstown sophomore football team coach Rashad Thomas, and the rest of the team, say a prayer before their game against Pennsville at the Gibbstown Youth Football Field in Gibbstown, N.J. on Oct. 17, 2020.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The 8- and 9-year-old Gibbstown Falcons ran onto their opponent’s field, their football helmets bouncing up and down like they were little bobbleheads. It was Sunday, Oct. 4, and the 28 members of the youth football team in Gloucester County lined up on the field for the national anthem.

“Coach Shad,” said a Falcons player, using the team’s nickname for coach Rashad Thomas. “I want to kneel.”

“I’ll kneel with you," Thomas said.

Thomas and the player took a knee. An assistant coach did the same.

Thomas, the team’s head coach of three years, told the players they did not have to kneel just because he was. But one by one, players dropped down, until other than three coaches, the entire team was kneeling and holding hands.

For a split second, it was a beautiful moment, said Thomas.

Until it wasn’t.

A group of parents in the stands — three of them board members responsible for overseeing the league’s operations — began to yell profanities, demanding their children stand up. Witnesses said one mother said the coaches would be fired, and even walked onto the field to pull her son up from his knee by his shoulder pads. Some players started to cry.

Within hours, four board members voted to suspend the entire Falcons coaching staff, asserting that the coaches ordered the boys to kneel.

The fallout has only built in the weeks since. The coaches' suspension was lifted after statewide outcry. Two of the board members who came down from the stands that day have been suspended for cursing, a punishment that critics say doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Now, coaches across the program may resign and dozens of parents — from the combined eight football and cheerleading teams — have threatened to pull their kids to stand up against what they believe was a series of racist actions taken by the league’s board.

» READ MORE: In Philadelphia’s white suburbs, Black Lives Matter protests both denounced and exposed racism. Will it make a difference?

The outcry caps weeks of tension after two youth teams — one mostly white, one mostly Black — from two fairly segregated South Jersey towns merged. The scene from a little league football field is representative of a larger picture in America: how racial reckonings have infiltrated every corner of the country, even youth sports, and how the coronavirus has brought it all to a head.

Neighboring towns merge

Football is ingrained in the culture of Gibbstown and neighboring Paulsboro, two Gloucester County towns located just over the Delaware River across from the Philadelphia International Airport.

The towns, a mere two miles apart, have only one high school, Paulsboro High, and since 1979, its football team has won the South Jersey Group 1 state championship 19 times. Each town typically has its own youth football league, but after the coronavirus caused team enrollment to dwindle, they decided to merge.

Paulsboro and Gibbstown have different racial demographics. Paulsboro, with fewer than 6,000 people, is about 70% white and 26% Black, according to Census data, while Gibbstown, with a population of about 3,700, is 93% white, and only 3% Black.

The towns’ demographics are representative in the teams, too. Paulsboro’s team is about 90% Black and players frequently knelt at their home games, coaches said, while Gibbstown’s team is mostly white.

From the start of the merger, Paulsboro parents and coaches said there was a feeling of “other.” It was little things — issues with equipment and registration fees and the majority-Black Paulsboro cheerleaders being excluded from the Gibbstown squads.

Many parents tried to brush it off as classic little league drama, but after the board’s reaction to the kneeling, they wonder whether the tension was a racial issue from the start.

“We were hesitant of going down there because of reasons like this,” said Brian Bundy Jr. of Paulsboro, who coaches another team in the league.

“No, [they] haven’t flat out come out and said we don’t like Black people,” he said. “But you can feel it."

“You know, you can try to put a mask on, but we feel the tension,” he said.

» READ MORE: Phillies start season with Black Lives Matter painted on the mound

“It’s been ‘us and them’ for the entire time. It’s never been a ‘we,’ ” said assistant coach Carl Revels, a Paulsboro coach of 13 years who helped plan the towns' Black Lives Matter march this summer.

Bundy has decided to finish out the season as coach, but he understands why so many people are contemplating leaving. Revels has not made up his mind.

“I had to explain to my son why we aren’t going to practice,” said Bundy, “and he asks me, ‘Why don’t they like us?’ ”

‘This is not just football’

Just as the boys grasped one another’s hands and the national anthem began to play across the speakers, loud voices boomed from the bleachers.

“Hey! Get up!” one father, Scott Schneider, who’s also a member of the football league’s board, screamed from the bleachers, according to coaches. “Get the f— up!”

Coaches said a mother, Katie Dell, also a league board member, yelled similar profanities and demanded her son stand. Dell, who is the cheerleading coach, marched from the sidelines onto the field, and pulled her son up by his shoulder pads.

“We didn’t raise you that way!” another parent yelled, according to witnesses.

Schneider took to Facebook that afternoon, writing that “whoever told my son kneel and hold hands is a disrespectful piece of s—!”

Dell declined to comment for this story. Schneider could not be reached by phone or Facebook message. His wife, also a board member, declined to comment.

In a Facebook post, after coaches and teams from around the state spoke out against the suspension of the Falcons coaches, the board issued an apology: “We respect everyone’s right to display their peaceful personal expressions and beliefs. What happened ... was unacceptable on many levels and will not be tolerated in the future.”

Still, parents and coaches throughout the league — white and Black alike — are demanding that all four board members who voted for the suspension be removed.

» READ MORE: PAFA grads boycott their own student art show while trustees pledge to increase diversity

But it’s largely to no avail. Schneider was removed because of his Facebook post, but Dell was only suspended for two weeks for cursing. Thomas, the Falcons' coach, was suspended for one week for cursing back. The two other members who voted for the suspension remain in place, and parents say the underlying issue of racism has yet to be addressed.

Many parents don’t feel comfortable having those three remaining board members representing their children, and believe they abused their power by bringing their personal feelings into the boardroom, said Revels.

At last Saturday’s game, Thomas wore his black and red team polo with a red fist newly ironed onto the front, and the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” covering the entirety of his back.

He said one parent saw his shirt, turned around, and took his son home.

Thomas' 8-year-old son, JiyAyre, the team’s quarterback, sported “Black Lives Matter” on his jersey, and the boys from Paulsboro wore their old Paulsboro uniforms. The team won 45-6, bringing their overall record to 4-1 and putting them on track to win the championship.

“This is not just football,” said Thomas. “It’s a life lesson, and these kids need to learn, especially the Black kids.”

Thomas said that after three weeks of deliberating with parents, he has decided not to resign.

“We are going to stay, win it all, and make it known that Paulsboro is not going anywhere,” he said Thursday.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia Black Lives Matter activists say they’re building the movement beyond protests

Many parents on the team will follow his lead, but said they won’t stop fighting for the players.

“These are kids. All they want to do is play football," said Kristine Dickson, the team mom. “And they deserve to have people on their board who back them.”

During a township council meeting Monday, parents and coaches pleaded for George Shivery Jr., a Republican in his 18th year as mayor of Greenwich Township, where Gibbstown is located, to intervene and save their season.

“Where is the accountability?” one woman asked.

“How can we have our names attached to something that is so disgraceful?” said Tom Dickson, an assistant coach.

Shivery, who is running for a position on the Gloucester County Freeholder board, declined to comment on the matter. He insisted the parents take their complaints to the football league’s board and said the township had no authority to intervene, despite the fact that the Recreation Committee partially funds the league.

George Johnson, head coach of another team in the league, has stepped down. At Saturday’s game, he wore a shirt that said, “Board Please Leave, So we can Stay.”

“You can have whatever beliefs you want, but when you are punishing off of your beliefs,” said Johnson, “I can’t play underneath that.”