Just as the first few notes of the Star-Spangled Banner crackled over the loudspeakers before their game on Saturday, the coach and almost every player on the Woodrow Wilson High School football team dropped to one knee.
It was the second time this season the team lodged a silent protest against social injustice and racism in Camden and across the country.
“In sports when there’s injury, folks kneel out of a sign of respect, because someone’s hurt,” said coach Preston Brown Sr., also a Wilson alum. “We’re hurt. We’re that oppressed group of people who still feel hurt by some of the injustices around the world and in this country.”
Linebacker Anthony Ramos said it’s common for him and his teammates to witness discrimination in the city.
“I see it mostly every day in the streets of Camden,” said Ramos. “White cops is always on the black people or colored people. So yeah I see it every day.”
Andre Johnson, whose son Justice took a knee during the national Anthem on Saturday, said the protest gave the players an outlet to express their feelings about social issues.
“This is something small for the school. It gives them some encouragement and something they believe in,” said Johnson.
Last month, San Francisco 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick received national attention for taking a knee during the National Anthem in a preseason game.
Since then the kneeling protest has been used across the country by professional, college, and high school athletes alike.
“It’s accomplished what activism is supposed to accomplish, and that is bringing our attention — whether we want to or not — to critical social issues facing marginalized people,” said Dr. Yasser Payne, a professor of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware.
Payne said he was amazed by the protest in Camden and noted that it fit with the history of African-American activism in the U.S. “Whatever generation it took place in, for the most part the groundswell for activism [in the black community] always took root in younger black populations, and also it took root in populations that were affiliated with an educational institution,” said Payne.
But the protest has not come without a backlash.
When the team first took a knee the previous weekend, criticism rolled in both online and in the media. A Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist blamed the coach and questioned whether the players, who he called “children,” were old enough to understand their actions.
Supporters in the stands on Saturday weren’t buying it.
“I can tell you, these kids at Woodrow Wilson High School understand more social injustice than probably most adults across this country, because of what they have to experience every single day,” said businessman and former Camden mayoral candidate Amir Khan. “They don’t read about it. They live it.”
Paymon Rouhanifard, superintendent of the Camden City School District, said many of the players were in their late teens or even 18 years old. “It’s clearly a formative time in their lives, and as adults we have to support them,” said Rouhanifard. “A lot is being lost in this debate over kneeling. Let’s at least, at some point, pivot and talk about why.”
Coach Brown said the team will not protest every game of the season — just enough to get the message across.
Woodrow Wilson beat Northern Burlington High School 38-0.