LANHAM, Md. — Football practice had ended early at Capital Christian Academy, a small all-black private school in suburban Washington, and the team's leaders decided it was time to talk to their new coach. It was late August, and the first game of the season was just three days away.
The players had something to say: They wanted to take a knee.
Coach Cornell Wade pulled up a chair from behind the teacher's desk in a classroom. He didn't flinch. "I hope you all know why," he told his players. He wasn't opposed, but he asked them to think hard: Are you doing this because you idolize the pro football players on TV? Or because the message behind the protest actually means something to you?
The boys were quiet. Then, one of the seniors spoke up.
"We're taking a knee because of inequality as a whole," said Josiah Gill, 17. "We're aware of what's going on in this country as young black males."
"A lot of people love football," Gill added. "You have them coming from places to see you do something, and why not take a knee, why not do this to show we see what's going on in the world?"
Like many high school football players across the country, Gill and his teammates had closely followed the debate over NFL players who protest during the national anthem, a movement that began with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling in 2016 to highlight racial injustice and police bias. As the league and team owners hash out how to penalize those players who are still protesting, a handful of high schools around the country have confronted the issue as well.
In some places where student-athletes knelt last year, the act turned contentious: Outside of Houston, two black football players at a private Christian school who protested during the national anthem were kicked off the team by their white coach. When members of a mostly black high school football team in Louisiana knelt before a game against a mostly white school, they were met with jeers and racial slurs. And in New Jersey, two referees at a high school football game walked off the field after players knelt, later saying they didn't like "anyone disrespecting our country, our flag, the armed forces."
Anecdotally, there appears to be a decline in high school players taking a knee this season, said N. Jeremi Duru, a professor of sports law at American University who writes about race and the NFL. Some schools have banned the protest, and young athletes may have been discouraged by reports of crackdowns. Or, Duru said, "perhaps they've begun to pursue progress in other ways in their communities." He cited the mobilizations against gun violence after recent school shootings as a different form of activism.
But at Capital Christian Academy, established in 2013 as an African-American-operated prep school in Prince George's County, Maryland, the question of whether to kneel still felt urgent to the players and their coach.
After Wade took the reins in August of the fledgling football team, named the Red Storm, he felt an immediate bond with the players. He was raised nearby, and being 26 and black, he is as much an older brother figure to the team as its coach.
"If you're going to be with the fight, be with the fight."
In their talk before the season began, Wade urged his young players to think about what would happen if they decided to protest during the national anthem.
"If you take a knee, it's fine," he said. "But do you understand the real ramifications? You might not just be offending the players on the other team. You might be offending the ref."
Gill looked around, his dark eyes peering behind glasses. "You got to be able to handle the adversity," he told his teammates.
They nodded and planned to talk with the rest of the team before making a final decision.
Before they were dismissed, Wade set two conditions: Every player must want to participate, and the team would have to kneel at every game.
"If you're going to be with the fight," he said, "be with the fight."
How it started
In the summer of 2017, Gill and a former Red Storm teammate hopped in his car and turned up the music. It was a familiar escape as they cruised past the strip malls, subdivisions and leafy lawns that make up Prince George's County. The pair didn't realize they had caught the attention of a police cruiser.
An officer pulled them over, then asked them to step out of the vehicle.
"We don't have anything on us," Gill said he informed the officer, who wanted to search them.
Gill said the officer, who was white, told them they were being stopped for playing their music too loud, which is a traffic violation under Maryland law.
Gill stood there confused, thinking, "I can't believe this is actually happening." He listened to every command and was careful not to make any sudden movements.
On Twitter, the stories of young black men's run-ins with police routinely flash across his timeline. Sometimes a viral video shows an arrest; other times, it's much worse.
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When he's feeling particularly anxious, Gill prays.
"We ask God to keep everybody safe out here because you never know what could happen," he said. "You could go out and just have fun and end up in a different place. You could end up in jail, you could end up dead."
Gill doesn't recall whether he was stopped by a local town or county officer. But in Prince George's County, one of the most affluent majority-black counties in the nation, there has been a history of racial disparities and police violence, according to a study in the Journal of Urban Health in 2016.