BETHEL PARK — A youth football coach claims racial slurs rang out from the stands during a game in this majority white Pittsburgh suburb over the weekend, after members of his mostly black team took a knee during the national anthem, sparking outrage and even a police response.
The coach, Marcus Burkley Sr., told WPXI-TV that two or three of his players took a knee during the anthem as National Football League players recently have in a controversial attempt to call attention to systemic racism in the U.S.
“Once they took a knee, you see cameras and people taking pictures. And out of nowhere you hear, ‘If the little N-word(s) want to take a knee, they shouldn’t be able to play,” Burkley said in an interview with the TV station that aired Tuesday.
An online message left for Burkley that afternoon was not immediately returned. Neither was an email seeking comment from a Bethel Park Junior Football League official.
But the coach told WPXI that in addition to racial slurs coming from a select few in the stands that day, his 12- and 13-year-old players also heard them from opposing players on the field.
Burkley said his Woodland Hills team members were even denied service at a concession stand after being told that the food inside was reserved for Bethel Park fans only.
At one point, police were called to stand guard on the field and keep the peace, WPXI reports. An after-hours attempt by PennLive to confirm this was unsuccessful on Tuesday, however.
And while Burkley’s team ultimately won the game, Burkley said they were just “glad to get out of there,” adding, “It was a sad night.”
In a Facebook message posted the next day, Burkley called the episode a learning experience for his players, saying they had gotten “a taste of what this cold society can sometime dish out.”
He went on to thank “the parents and fans who endured last night’s game,” and said, “We still got work to do! It’s bigger than football!”
His post has been viewed hundreds of times in the days since. And while most of the comments have been positive, a since deleted remark revealed some of the same anger purportedly directed and the coach and his players during the game.
“You’re letting 12-year-old kids kneel during the national anthem?? you have no respect for the country you live in. ill buy you a first class ticket to North Korea and you can tell me just how bad it is here,” the commenter wrote.
That same sentiment has greeted professional athletes choosing not to stand for the anthem, and is now being seen with child and high school athletes nationwide who have decided to follow their lead. The critics often argue that the move degrades the sacrifices of military service members and the police.
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But in other cases, the cause of the outrage seems to be less about the statement than about the types of people making it.
In a New York Daily News report from last month, reporter Shaun King, whose work focuses heavily on issues of race in America, said youth football players in Texas were threatened with lynching after taking a knee during the anthem there.
“April Parkerson, whose son plays on the team said, ‘Our children are receiving death threats from people saying things like hang those monkeys, they should’ve died on 9/11, and they’re going to kill each other anyway,'” King wrote.
Similar stories have been reported with youth and high school football leagues from Virginia to San Francisco and Las Vegas, where a local sports columnist last month questioned whether it was possible for kids so young to fully grasp the meaning of such a loaded statement.
In Woodland Hills, coach Burkley surely thinks it is, and he was standing by his players’ actions in the face of mounting blowback on Tuesday.
But beyond his critics, his supporters were often just as vocal, if not more so. Many thanked Burkley for taking a stand, while others defended the team’s right to protest, calling the act as quintessentially American as football itself.
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