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Bench protesting students to teach life lesson

If high school football players take to protesting whatever through disrespectful conduct towards symbols representing ideas behind the Constitution, the most important lesson they should learn isn’t utilizing free expression, but that actions have consequences.

After two Sundays ago, when National Football League players in significant number began not acknowledging the U.S. flag or standing at attention facing it during playing of the National Anthem, school officials rightly suspected copycat action would appear on the horizon as well. If nothing else, children obey faddishness and let themselves get swept up in trends, in this instance a reaction by professional players against remarks made by Pres. Donald Trump denigrating those who acted as such.

To cut this trendiness off at the pass, on instructions from the Bossier Parish School Board Superintendent Scott Smith in no uncertain terms mandated that students choosing to participate in extracurricular activities such as football have to observe decorum regarding the flag and Anthem. The district’s high school principals, such as Parkway High School’s Principal Waylon Bates, drove the point home further by issuing a letter to athletes and parents demanding standing in a respectful manner during the Anthem. Violators refusing to do that could be punished by coaches and school officials.

This adhered to guidelines issued by the Louisiana High School Athletics Association last year, when a smattering of professional players began to demonstrate in this way. These strictures, recently reissued, said the organization left up to each district discretion of what to do. 

Of course, the Bossier approach raised the ire of the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which alleged anything adverse done to protesting students would violate their First Amendment rights. If a school suspension or curtailment of privilege happened solely because of an expressed viewpoint, the organization got it correct: the judiciary has ruled for decades that districts may curtail only expression that causes a significant disruption in providing education and the discipline needed to go along with that.

Thus, a school could not suspend a student for such conduct, or even kick him off the team, as a silent symbolic protest does not seem all that disruptive. But – and the Bossier guidance left open this possibility – the jurisprudence does not and cannot address game management coaching decisions.

For example, a coach may refuse to play a boy that protests, no matter how valuable to the team, on the basis that the protesting harms team chemistry by sowing dissension, so it will play better without the offending element on the field. The player remains in school and on the team and participates, just not on game day. Further, school officials have complete discretion in assigning employees to coach a team – witness last year’s sacking by Parkway of its previous coach for remarks he made and actions he took regarding the University of Alabama – so if they direct a coach to bench demonstrating players at risk of his job, they can do that legally. (The coach in question now coaches again at a school in Farmerville.)

This presents a life lesson to student athletes contemplating behaving in this fashion. If they have a beef about the political system, they have a number of outlets in which to express it without any repercussions. They could take a cue from their favorite athletes, some of whom make maximal use of social media to spew their opinions. But, if they choose to hijack a pregame ceremony with a divisive display, they could find themselves benched.

Thus, they must contemplate whether the passion they feel on this issue and its importance warrants the disharmony they can bring to a team through controversial demonstrations that results in their not playing, as opposed to alternative means by which they express their opinions. That mimics the kinds of decisions they will have to make in the adult world, and, therefore, provides a valuable life lesson.

School districts would do well to impose this restriction, to teach youth that life is full of choices, and of the consequences that come with selection of these.

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