A group 7- and 8-year-old peewee football players are the latest to stand up for their beliefs by kneeling on the field.

With the support of parents and coaches, a team of third-graders in Cahokia, Illinois, decided to take a knee during the national anthem before their Sunday afternoon game to protest the acquittal of Jason Stockley in the neighboring town of St. Louis.

Stockley, a white police officer, was found not guilty of gunning down black driver Anthony Lamar Smith after being recorded telling his partner, "We're killing this motherf**ker" minutes earlier.


Junior Commanches' Coach Orlando "Doc" Gooden told the Belleville News-Democrat that the protest was a "teaching opportunity" that arose after one of the 8-year-old players asked him about the demonstrations taking place in St. Louis.

"As a coach and adult, it’s your role to protect those that are weaker and to enlighten them when you can," he said. The team got the idea to kneel for the anthem during a practice for Sunday's game.

The gesture was met with hostility in some conservative media outlets. RedState's Teri Christoph framed the demonstration as something parents now "have to fear."

"Fair warning to parents: not only do we have to worry about what our kids are learning at school, seeing on the internet, watching on TV … we have to fear indoctrination via sports teams, even at the youngest ages."

On Fox and Friends, the LIBRE Initiative's Rachel Campos-Duffy affirmed the players' right to free speech, while blasting the protest as disrespectful to veterans.

"They absolutely do have the right to do this, but we have the right to get on TV and say this is shameful."

In a post-game interview, Gooden rejected the suggestion that he forced the kids to kneel or that he suggested they turn away from the flag.

"I know some of the people talk and speak as if I told the kids to turn around and that. I didn’t," he told the BND. "They brought up the subject and led the discussion. I feel like once a child shows interest in a topic, you have to talk to them and teach them what you can."

"I told them kneeling is a show of respect, not for those who broke boundaries — I support only peaceful protest — but for the innocent lives that have been touched by injustice."

The team modeled their demonstration after former San Francisco Giants quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick's decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence and racial injustice last season continues to reverberate through the NFL.

Before an August pre-season game against the New York Giants, nearly a dozen Cleveland Browns players kneeled and prayed during the anthem.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

"The United States is the greatest country in the world. It is because it provides opportunities to citizens that no other country does," Browns tight end Seth DeValve, the first known white player to take a knee in protest, told ESPN. "The issue is that it doesn't provide equal opportunity to everybody."

Despite hoping to play this season, Kaepernick remains unsigned by all 30 NFL teams. The movement he started, however, continues to spread — to players of all ages.

"What I teach my kids is love, integrity, honesty, fairness, respect and boundaries," Gooden told St. Louis' Fox2Now.

Thanks to an example set by one of their idols, a few dozen third-graders are getting a lesson in football — and in exercising their rights.  

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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