Oswego football team finds unity in the age of Kaepernick and Black Lives Matter

The Aedes aegypti mosquito carries the Zika virus and transmits the virus to humans when it bites.
The Aedes aegypti mosquito carries the Zika virus and transmits the virus to humans when it bites. (Public domain Photo via Flickr)

By Alex Ortiz

In a sea of Oswego East Wolves football fans wearing the school’s color blue, one red speck stood out at the Plainfield North High School game Friday. Glen Lane wore a San Francisco 49ers jersey as he watched his grandson, Oswego East defensive back Shakur Long, help his team remain undefeated.

It was an official Colin Kaepernick jersey.

The night was the first time Lane could make it to one of his grandson’s games this season. Originally from Louisiana, he was a teen there during the 1960s civil rights movement. He remembers Jim Crow segregation and wanted to show his support for peaceful national anthem protests by athletes around the country bringing awareness to the issue of police brutality against African-Americans.

“You should be able to protest in any form you want to as long as it’s law-abiding,” Lane said. “He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s not disrespecting anybody. He should be allowed to protest in the fashion in which he wants to.”

Lane supports the Oswego team’s display during the national anthem to show team unity while being careful to stay out of the political fray. Before Oswego East’s Sept. 16 matchup at Plainfield South High School, the team stood on their goal line, faced the American flag and locked arms during the national anthem.

Kaepernick, the 49ers backup quarterback, gained national attention during the 2016 NFL preseason for refusing to stand for the “Star Spangled Banner” before games. The protest then spread to some teammates and other NFL players, as well as other professional and college athletes, but critics said the protests were disrespectful to the American flag and the military. Now, even high school athletes are joining the movement.

“I felt like it was just a matter of time before our kids wanted to voice their feelings regarding the situation,” LeBlanc said who approached the team with the solution. “It’s something that I think especially at the high school level, we’re not on the national stage and I think there would be a lot more negative [reactions]. Not that I’m trying to strip our kids from having their feelings or their say or their opinion or being able to show that.

“It’s more important to show that we are together as one,” he said.

LeBlanc, who is African-American like many of his players, was happy they were engaged and aware of the national conversation, and was concerned about attracting negativity from the community, largely white. One of the problems with the protests, he said, is some critics don’t focus on the reason for the protest but instead scrutinize the method itself.

For example, former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer said: “No matter how passionate you are, no matter how much of a burden you have for a social issue, you don’t let it get in the way of the team.”

Still, LeBlanc said he did not want anyone who was uncomfortable to feel compelled to participate due to the potential for negative backlash. While the football team is very diverse, the student body reflects the mostly white Oswego community.

So LeBlanc left the decision to each player.

“I would be stupid to think that everybody has the same opinion, same view as I do,” LeBlanc said. “I want them to be free thinkers, to be able to form their own opinions.”

One of those free thinkers is quarterback Jaylon Banks, who has a black and a white parent. His father is a U.S. Marines veteran who now serves in law enforcement. Banks understands the stakes between African-Americans and the police but is in favor of showing team unity over any political stance.

“I’m both sides,” Banks said.

The team again stood arm-in-arm before Oswego East defeating Plainfield North 21-14 to remain undefeated and tied for first in its conference. While football is the team’s main focus, they also want to show positivity during a time of much political and social strife.

“We’re not going to say ‘Oh they’re wrong’ or ‘These people are overreacting,’” Banks said. “Doing that won’t necessarily help the situation. So our biggest focus is setting the example of unity, peace and love.”

Photo at top: The Oswego East High School football team stands arm in arm during the playing of the national anthem before the team’s game against Plainfield North last Friday. (Alex Ortiz/MEDILL)