The 8- and 9-year-old Gibbstown Falcons ran into their opponent’s field, their football helmets bouncing up and down like they were little bobbleheads. It was Sunday October 4 and the 28 members of the Gloucester County Youth Football team lined the pitch for the national anthem.
“Coach Shad,” said a Falcons player, using the team 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 didn’t have to kneel just because he was. But one by one the players fell, until apart from three coaches the entire team knelt and held hands.
For a split second, it was a beautiful moment, Thomas said.
Until that is no longer the case.
A group of parents in the stands – including three board members responsible for overseeing league operations – began shouting profanity, demanding that their children stand up. Witnesses said a mother said coaches would be fired and even went onto the pitch to pull her son off his knee by his shoulder pads. Some players started crying.
Within hours, four board members voted to suspend the entire Falcons coaching staff, saying the coaches had ordered the boys to kneel.
The fallout only built in the weeks that followed. The coaches’ suspension was lifted after a statewide outcry. Two of the board members who came down from the stands that day were suspended for swearing, a punishment that critics say doesn’t go far enough.
Now the program’s coaches can quit and dozens of parents – from all eight football and cheerleading teams combined – have threatened to fire their children for standing up against what they believe to be a series of racist actions taken by the board administration of the league.
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The outcry caps weeks of tension after the merger of two youth teams – one mostly white, one mostly black – from two fairly separate towns in South Jersey. The scene at a little league football field is representative of a larger picture in America: how racial calculus has seeped into every corner of the country, even youth sports, and how the coronavirus has put everything in light.
Football is steeped in the culture of Gibbstown and Paulsboro, two towns in Gloucester County located just over the Delaware River across from Philadelphia International Airport.
The towns, just 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 city usually has its own youth football league, but after coronavirus led to dwindling squad registrations, they decided to merge.
Paulsboro and Gibbstown have different racial demographics. Paulsboro, with less than 6,000 residents, is about 70 percent white and 26 percent black, according to census data, while Gibbstown, with a population of about 3,700, is 93 percent white and only 3% black.
The demography of the cities is also representative in the teams. Paulsboro’s team is about 90% black and players have kneeled frequently in their home games, coaches said, while Gibbstown’s team is predominantly white.
From the start of the merger, parents and coaches at Paulsboro said there was a sense of “otherness.” It was small things — problems with equipment and entry fees and Paulsboro’s majority black cheerleaders being barred from Gibbstown teams.
Many parents have tried to pass it off as a classic little league drama, but after the board’s reaction to the kneeling, they wonder if the tension was a racial issue all along.
“We were hesitant to go for reasons like this,” said Brian Bundy Jr. of Paulsboro, who coaches another league team.
“No, [they] didn’t categorically say we don’t like black people,” he said. “But it feels.”
“You know, you can try to put on a mask, but we feel the tension,” he said.
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“It’s been ‘us and them’ the whole time. It’s never been an ‘us’,” said assistant coach Carl Revels, a 13-year-old Paulsboro coach who helped plan the Black Walk. Cities Lives Matter this summer.
Bundy has decided to end the season as a coach, but he understands why so many people are considering leaving. Revels hasn’t made up his mind.
“I had to explain to my son why we weren’t going to practice,” Bundy said, “and he asked me, ‘Why don’t they like us? ”
Just as the boys held hands and the national anthem began to play over the speakers, loud voices sounded from the bleachers.
“Hey! Get up!” a father, Scott Schneider, who is also a member of the football league’s board of directors, shouted from the stands, according to the coaches. “Get up !”
Coaches said a mother, Katie Dell, also a league board member, shouted similar profanity and demanded her son stand up. Dell, who is the cheerleading coach, walked from the sideline onto the field and pulled her son by his shoulder pads.
“You weren’t raised like that!” another parent screamed, witnesses said.
Schneider took to Facebook that afternoon, writing that “whoever told my son to kneel and hold hands is a disrespectful piece of s—!”
Dell declined to comment for this story. Schneider was not reachable by phone or Facebook message. His wife, also a board member, declined to comment.
In a Facebook post, after coaches and teams across the state spoke out against the suspension of Falcons coaches, the board issued an apology: “We respect everyone’s right to post their peaceful personal expressions and beliefs. What happened…was unacceptable on many levels and will not be tolerated in the future.
Yet parents and coaches across the league — white and black — are demanding that the four board members who voted to suspend be removed.
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But it is largely in vain. Schneider was fired for posting on Facebook, but Dell was only suspended for two weeks for swearing. Falcons coach Thomas was suspended for a week for responding. The other two members who voted to suspend remain in place and the parents say the underlying problem of racism has yet to be addressed.
Many parents don’t feel comfortable having these three remaining board members represent their children and believe they have abused their power by airing their personal feelings in the boardroom, Revels said.
During last Saturday’s match, Thomas wore his black and red team polo shirt with a newly ironed red fist on the front and the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” covering his entire back.
He said a relative saw his shirt, turned around and took his son home.
Thomas’ 8-year-old son, JiyAyre, the team’s quarterback, wore “Black Lives Matter” on his jersey, and the Paulsboro boys wore their old Paulsboro uniforms. The team won 45-6, taking their overall record to 4-1 and putting them on course to win the championship.
“It’s not just football,” Thomas said. “It’s a life lesson, and these kids need to learn, especially black kids.”
Thomas said after three weeks of deliberation with the parents, he decided not to quit.
“We’re going to stay, win it all and let it be known that Paulsboro isn’t going anywhere,” he said Thursday.
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Many of the team’s parents will follow his lead, but said they won’t stop fighting for the players.
“They are children. All they want to do is play football,” said Kristine Dickson, the team’s mother. “And they deserve to have people on their board who support them.”
At a city council meeting on 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 step in and save their season.
“Where is the responsibility?” a woman asked.
“How can we have our names attached to something so shameful?” said Tom Dickson, assistant coach.
Shivery, who is running for a position on the Gloucester County Freeholder Board, declined to comment on the matter. He insisted parents take their complaints to the football league board and said the township had no power to intervene, despite the recreation committee partially funding the league.
George Johnson, head coach of another league team, has quit. During Saturday’s game, he wore a shirt that read, “Council, please go, so we can stay.”
“You can have all the beliefs you want, but when you punish your beliefs,” Johnson said, “I can’t play below that.”