The controversy over the National Anthem that’s played out at NFL games has made its way to Vancleave.
A disagreement over whether high school football players should be on the field during the national anthem has led to a heated Facebook discussion, threats to pull sponsorships from the Vancleave Quarterback Club and an apology from Vancleave administration.
It’s all rooted in a moment prior to last week’s final home game of the season against the undefeated squad from East Central, a rival and fellow member of the Jackson County School District.
About 5 minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. kickoff last Friday, the East Central players stood on the field during the national anthem while the Vancleave football team was still in the locker room making final preparations for a key game that would determine if they made the playoffs.
The East Central staff, who had no prior knowledge of when the anthem would be played, instructed their players to stand for the anthem when the color guard walked onto the field and the public address announcer asked those in attendance to stand.
Some Vancleave fans were angered that their team was nowhere to be seen.
“A lot of the community was upset that the visiting team was on the field,” said Andrea Price Fuller, president of the Vancleave Quarterback Club. “It was embarrassing. There was just a loud outcry, anger.”
Fuller, who has a son on the Vancleave football team, sent a text message to athletic director Matt Walters the week of the game expressing her wish that both teams would stand for the national Anthem that Friday.
“Our team wasn’t out, but the visiting team was out,” Fuller said as she recalled what took place as the national anthem began. “I asked (Walters), ‘Hey, where’s our team?’ He didn’t know.”
While teams at Bay High and St. Stanislaus do stand on the field during the national anthem, the majority of high school football teams are usually in the locker room getting final instructions from their coaches while the anthem is played. It’s a practice that’s been in place on the college level for many years.
Facing the backlash
The uproar at Vancleave was intense enough that Walters and Jackson County assistant superintendent Todd Knight released an apologetic statement that was posted on the Vancleave Quarterback Club Facebook page, saying “Vancleave High School will resume playing the National Anthem while players, coaches and fans stand proudly as Americans to honor all those who have fought and died to protect our way of life.”
The statement detailed the school district’s decision during an Oct. 4 administrative meeting to change the time of the national anthem for the Oct. 6 home game against Moss Point. Instead of playing the national anthem between the usual time of 6:50 and 6:55, it was moved to 6:40 p.m. — a time when neither team is on the field.
The statement said the decision served two purposes:
“1. To prevent disrespectful demonstrations planned by any player, coach or any other participant in the game that could cause highly emotional responses from our current or veteran service members, their families, or any other individual who may find their actions offensive.
“2. To protect a young person from making an adult decision in which they do not understand the gravity by kneeling during our National Anthem.”
The statement said Vancleave administration was aware of “specific mentions of Vancleave High School student-athletes who could possibly (take a knee) during their games.”
“While we developed a plan to handle this situation with our student-athletes if it should arise, legal counsel advised that if we should have a student athlete kneel during the National Anthem, we should completely ignore it and pretend as if it did not happen,” the statement said. “That means no suspensions, no punishment and no repercussions of any kind.”
Vancleave moved the national anthem to 6:40 p.m. for the Moss Point game and the Oct. 20 contest against Pass Christian, a team that faced intense backlash on social media after three of its players took a knee during the national anthem prior to the Sept. 29 game at Bay High.
Walters and Knight claim that there was no criticism pointed their way after the Moss Point and Pass Christian games, but the pre-game plans for Senior Night on Oct. 27 pushed back the schedule for Friday’s game and complicated things.
“While we provided a schedule for all individuals participating, we did not tell the (Vancleave) coaching staff to bring the players out to the field for the national anthem, leaving the coaching staff to believe that they should not be on the field,” the statement said. “The coaches should not take any responsibility for this miscommunication, as that is our responsibility as administration of Vancleave High School to make sure that everyone fully understands their roles.”
Vancleave’s statement has not totally quelled discontent among some in the community. Some are planning to attend Monday’s Jackson County School Board meeting at St. Martin High School to express their opinion on the matter.
“We have a great community that’s supportive and very involved,” Fuller said. “I am hoping that everyone can come to an agreement and settle down.”