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.