On Saturday, November 23, Detroit’s Denby High School was playing in the Division 5 semifinals against unbeaten suburban powerhouse Almont High. The town of Almont is almost entirely white. Denby High located in a city that is 79 percent black. Before the game, showcasing some serious courage given the surrounding environment, several Denby players took a knee during the anthem in protest of racism and police violence. The response from the Almont “fans” was to throw garbage at these teenagers and hurl racial slurs.
Denby coach Deon Godfrey said to The Detroit Free Press, “Our cameraman is white and was filming near some Almont fans. During the national anthem, he overheard them saying: ‘Look at these N-words taking a knee and they don’t even know why they’re doing it,’ and they kept going.”
He also said that the white coaches on Denby’s sideline were called “wiggers” and that “grown men and women started spitting on our kids as they walked up the ramp. They were throwing food, cups, and whatever…. They called my student trainer a little monkey and they were saying: ‘Who let them off their leashes? They need to be on a leash. They never should have been here in the first place.’”
After the game there were scuffles as Denby left the field, as more debris was tossed from the stands.
Denby counselor Bob Burg wrote on Facebook that as the game was coming to a close, “One of our young men was punched in the face by an Almont parent! After we were able to get our kids in a safe area they locked us all in a caged area in the corner of the field, when we just wanted to get the kids safely on our bus.”
This has been a feature of the Trump era: sporting events used as a place to spew racist derision at opposing teams. A knee is often not even required for people to feel like a a high school game is the proper place to bleat their bigotry, but it certainly on more than one occasion has been a highly flammable accelerant.
Howard Bryant, senior writer at ESPN and author of the new book Full Dissidence: Notes From An Uneven Playing Field, said to me, “This was a moment where sports was co-opted from a place of player expression to one of disciplining players for their politics. The kneeling gesture is ‘the signal’ and the reason why it’s ‘the signal’ is because it’s the spot where America comes apart, where all the post-9/11 pro-police messaging and militarism at sporting events collides with the reality of the cops and military. In no other element of our culture is there such a clear and defiant single gesture like taking a knee. Where else are we allowed the space to say we disagree with our police? Where else can we register with one gesture, dissent with the alleged ideals of this country? America is getting called out with this one gesture and they are determined to punish anyone using it.”
The following Saturday, November 30, was the Division 5 championship game held at Ford Field in Detroit. There, mighty Almont lost 31-17 to Lansing Catholic, Lansing’s first championship in decades. The events of the previous Saturday must have been a distraction to the Almont players and coaches. As The Detroit Free Press wrote this week during the lead-up to the Division 5 final, “When the Almont High School football team takes the field seeking its first state championship Saturday, it will do so under a mushroom cloud of racial tension.”
On the Tuesday before the game, Almont Community Schools Superintendent William Kalmar said, “[The team] will be able to maintain a high degree of focus. But if you’re a football player and your girlfriend is talking about being worried about driving down to Detroit because of what people are saying on Twitter, I don’t know if you can close all that off totally. I mean, they’re still human beings. Do you know what I mean?”
It’s this kind of constant positioning of Detroit as the scary “other,” threatening to this fictitious “girlfriend,” that some people from Almont use as ammunition for their own bigotry. Instead of reckoning with that bigotry, statements like this serve as justification. Superintendent Kalmar is also trying to deflect or ignore an obvious truth. This all started because Denby players had the courage to use the field as a political space, and the fans at Almont responded with violence to what they were trying to say. This one simple, nonviolent gesture could not be abided. Taking a knee is truly, as Howard Bryant said, “where America falls apart.”