Both the Mendocino High Schoolgirls and boys varsity basketball teams are being scrutinized in the national media today after their donning of “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts got them banned from a local tournament. The student athletes have become the latest casualty as tensions continue to flare up between supporters of law enforcement and supporters of protesters who have been galvanized by a series of arrest related deaths of black individuals.
Both Mendocino High School teams were initially banned from participating in a three day tournament beginning tomorrow and hosted by Fort Bragg High school. The varsity teams had worn t-shirts during warm-up for games earlier this December bearing the dying words of Eric Garner, a black man, as he was being arrested—words which have become a rallying cry for protesters.
Although initially, the Mendocino High School teams had worn the t-shirts during warmup games earlier this month with no repercussions, that changed recently. On December 21, the Mendocino County Deputy Sheriffs Association‘s Facebook page, whose cover photo still shows Deputy Ricky Del Fiorentino, a deputy who died in the line of duty this March, posted,
Some of our members were recently informed that students from a Mendocino Coast School wore shirts before a school basketball game with, “I can’t breathe”. This was very discouraging and disrespectful in our eyes. Let us not forget so soon that Deputy Ricky Del Fiorentino recently lost his life trying to protect our citizens! He went into a situation that most people want to run from. So no matter your opinion of law enforcement, know we will ALWAYS be there to help you.”
Soon afterwards, the Mendocino boys and girls teams were informed by their Fort Bragg High School tournament hosts that they were uninvited to play. Members of both communities began to choose sides. And they didn’t always choose along school lines as the high school tournament became a battleground for the sides chosen by adults in the larger societal issue.
The president of the Mendocino schools booster club resigned in protest writing later, “The only problem I have with this situation is that as athletes of our school, they represent us. If our student body had gotten together and decided to wear these shirts, I would stand behind it. This small group of students made a very large statement for us as a group.”
The other side argued that free speech rights extended to students arguing that even professional athletes recently wore similar shirts while warming up and faced no repercussions.
As of this writing, the Fort Bragg High School tournament hosts have agreed to accept the Mendocino teams if they pledge not to wear the shirts. All but one of the Mendocino male athletes agreed so the boys team will be playing. However, only 5 girls agreed which left the team short of players and unable to participate.
This arrangement has continued to split the community. One former Mendocino Union School District trustee recently wrote,
…the idea that our MHS girls’ team must yield their First Amendment rights as a condition to play the game is not a legal or commendable result…For over 200 years, US soldiers and sailors have been dying all over the world… in defense of US citizens (including teenagers) and the values we have set including the First Amendment.
Yesterday, athletes from the Mendocino teams sent an open letter excerpted below:
It has come to our attention that members of our local law enforcement felt ‘discouraged and disrespected’ by our participation in a non-violent national protest…
Some of us and many of our parents personally knew Deputy Ricky Delfiorentino. He was the best example of a law enforcement officer who knew how to calm down tense situations peacefully. Our protest has nothing to do with exemplary officers like Deputy Delfiorentino.
We are saddened that the message we are trying to send has been misconstrued, but understand that by choosing to wear our shirts we were getting involved in a very real and controversial issue…
We, the players, wanted to express our support for the people who face prejudices, racism, and police brutality daily in our country and convey our concern about these injustices to the public.
…We appreciate police officers and their difficult and sometimes dangerous job, but at the same time we condemn police brutality that does exist in our country and feel even small communities like ours should promote awareness of such crucial matters.
Hat tip to MendocinoSportsPlus which has done an exemplary job at following this story from the beginning.