‘Too black, too strong’: The Woodrow Wilson Tigers’ national anthem protest
In 2009, Preston Brown gave up the dream of playing professional football for the NFL and moved back to his hometown of Camden, New Jersey. He did it with a single purpose in mind: to help poor boys like he had once been.
As the head coach of the Woodrow Wilson High School Tigers, he took on the 24-hour-a-day job of being a mentor and a father figure to 68 young men and boys who are growing up in one of the poorest cities in the US. The 31-year-old spends his own money to feed them when they’re hungry. He gives them a place to stay when they have nowhere to go.
So why do so many strangers want him out of a job?
“You are a disgrace to your high school and a coward.”
“I will help them fire you … I hate you with all my heart.”
“Get the f*ck out of this country if you don’t like it you anti-American asshole.”
Brown – a married father of three – wakes up every morning to emails, Facebook messages and voicemails questioning his intellect, his humanity, his patriotism.
For the past two weeks, the Camden City School District has received dozens of calls from across the country, calling for Brown’s dismissal. A local radio personality denounced his “ignorance, shame and stupidity” on the air.
The sin that Brown committed: on 10 September, at the Woodrow Wilson Tigers’ first game of the season, Brown refused to stand for the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. Instead, he took a knee in a silent protest.
With the exception of two players, the entire Tiger football team joined him. A local sports reporter captured the incident on video – a row of players kneeling in their black and orange uniforms – and posted it online. By evening, the story had gone viral.
“I honestly did not know or feel like anybody would’ve cared if we kneeled,” says Brown. “I really didn’t think it was going to be a big deal at all.”
Seated in one of many worn and broken chairs in the messy coaches’ offices behind the high school, Brown – six foot four, still built like the receiver he was in his playing days, head shaved smooth – says the abuse has been directed at the players as well.
They’ve been called “animals,” “illiterate”, “dirtbags”.
Brown has received ominous voice messages from a caller promising he’s coming to the Tigers’ next game.
“I’m an adult. I can handle it,” he says.
“But the fact that all these people would say all these negative things to try to destroy the mental makeup of these young people that I stand in front of and I love with everything inside of me…”
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