PATERSON, NJ  – The Paterson Eastside Ghosts Football Team will stand up for racial justice by taking a knee when the National Anthem is played before games during the 2020 season, a statement from Paterson Public Schools announced Friday, just hours before they are set to kick off against Passaic High School.

The team’s players and coaches came to the unanimous decision on Thursday night in an online vote that came after the last practice before their first game of the season, and after they had heard a talk from local social worker William Raheem Smallwood. “Before you take a position to speak out against social injustice, police brutality, or anything else that you’re feeling in your heart, you have to understand why you are taking that position,” Smallwood told the players who were grouped together on one knee in the middle of Bauerle Field.  

With COVID-19 precautions in place to prevent the spread of the virus preparing for the 2020 football season has already been a challenge, Eastside Football Head Coach James Magazine told TAPinto Paterson recently. In a year that has also been marked by social injustice and demonstrations against institutionalized racism, high school student-athletes, particularly those on a predominantly African-American football team, also were put in a position to decide how they would make their own voices heard. 

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Magazine wanted his players to make an informed decision, the statement read, that’s why he asked Smallwood to talk to the team. In the roughly 15 minutes he spoke, Smallwood called to mind the death of George Floyd after a police officer had knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. He mentioned NFL free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the reasons why he took a knee during the anthem. He also spoke of the Black Power salute given at the 1968 Summer Olympics by Tommie Smith and John Carlos when the anthem played after they had been awarded the gold and bronze medals, respectively.  

“They raised their hands with a black fist. Not because they were disrespecting anybody else but because of the same things we are talking about today in our community, the same things that are happening in our state and our world when it comes to black men, were happening then at that time,” Smallwood said.  

Smallwood also referred to the achievements of Eastside High School alums including Rory Sparrow, who played in the NBA for the Atlanta Hawks and the New York Knicks, and Franklin Jacobs, who he called “one of the world’s greatest track stars” who set records in high jumping.  

Superintendent of Schools Eileen Shafer, who was with the team during the talk, told the players she would wholeheartedly support them in their decision about the anthem.  

“The young men on this team are hardworking student-athletes who we are already proud of even before the first game of the season,” Superintendent of Schools Eileen Shafer said during the team talk, adding that she supported the players in their decision about the anthem.“I commend Coach Magazine and Assistant Superintendent David Cozart for guiding these young men in making a very important decision. It was their hope that the players would make their own decision based on their own thoughts, reasoning, and integrity. They did everything they could to help the players do exactly that, and I am grateful to them. As for the players’ decision, I support them 100 percent.” 

Before breaking for a team supper, Magazine told the players to text him a simple “yes” or “no” message on the question of whether to kneel during the anthem that night between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.  

As they sat down to eat, many of the players said they were inspired by Smallwood’s talk.  

“It really makes you think about how our society is,” said Matthew Johnson, a junior who plays left guard. “It needs to get way better than it is now, and it starts with us young men.”   

Defensive tackle Arthur Evans, a junior, said he had not decided whether to take a knee until he heard Smallwood speak. “His talk actually had me thinking about what goes on in the world,” Evans said. 

For offensive tackle Malachi Bethea, a ninth-grader, his decision to take a knee came down to a single name.  “George Floyd,” said Bethea. “He was begging for his life that whole entire time telling them, ‘I can’t breathe,’ and they refused to get up. It really opened my eyes as a freshman that it’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than Paterson.”  

Freshman Shakeem Senior, who plays guard and tackle, said he would be emulating Kaepernick by taking a knee. “He didn’t just do it because he thought it was cool,” Senior said. “There was a meaning behind him doing it. And there’s a meaning behind it for me.”  

Sophomore Aneuris Munoz, wide receiver, said his taking a knee would be in solidarity with his teammates, who he regards as family.  “I understand why people take a knee,” Munoz said. “I’m okay with taking a knee. As long as we, as family, make the decision.” 

Messiah Muckle, a senior who plays wide receiver and outside linebacker, said he would take a knee. “I’m choosing to show what I really believe,” he said. But Muckle added that not everyone needs to take a knee to fight racism.  

“There’s so much you can do,” Muckle said. “You can just be verbal about your beliefs, but in a respectful way. You can honestly just go out and live your life with your personal mindset, and that will be enough to influence a lot – just to go out through your day thinking that, ‘my life matters.’ That will honestly affect other people watching you, being around you, it’ll affect the people you talk to every day.” 

Players also gave high marks to Shafer for showing her support of the team and her respect for the players as young men.  

“As our Superintendent, that means she’s going to ride for us,” said Evans, the junior defensive tackle. “Whatever we choose, she’s got our backs.” 

“She said that she is behind us. That gave us a boost not only for our season but for the rest of our lives,” said Bethea, freshman offensive tackle. “Her being a part of Eastside’s community, everything that we built this year, everything that we’re going to keep building after this year, she came out here and told us that she was behind us and that meant a lot to everybody here.” 

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