FEATURE

Rebounding From Hate

When members of this middle school basketball team experienced bigotry and harassment, they had a choice: Give up or rise up.
Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

It’s just a photo.

Eleven girls, each on one knee, in white uniforms in the shadow of a basketball hoop. Two other players and their coach are standing, hands over hearts. Some of the kneeling players also have their hands on their hearts and look in the direction of the flag. Others look around at each other, seeming confused. In the stands behind them, some people stand at attention; others look disengaged.

Snap. A moment. A photo.

But then, that photo gets shared on social media. The caption reads: “Licking Heights 8th grade girls’ basketball team during the national anthem. Can’t believe this.”

The comments were instantaneous:

“Let’s go to next game An smack their coach”

“Disgraceful little nappy headed hoes…shame on that gutless school for not doing anything about it.”

“I hope you booed them”

Just like that, a middle school girls’ basketball team in central Ohio was caught up in their own Colin Kaepernick moment—stories in local newspapers and Columbus-area TV stations spread the photo across social media. Some local residents supported them, but the loudest voices came from those who believed the girls were disrespectfully protesting the flag.

 

A Coach Speaks Out

Coach Sonya Glover, who comes from a military family, confronted the situation directly. In an interview on a local television station, she explained that the team captain had been kneeling throughout the season, a quiet response to police brutality and the treatment of African Americans. She said she’d discussed the student’s decision to kneel with the player and her parents. And besides, Glover pointed out, her players—most of whom are also African American—had faced hate speech from hecklers in the stands all season long.

But the photo that sparked the social media storm had little to do with the captain’s personal protest. At their last home game, each player was presented a rose before playing. Immediately after, the announcer said, “Please stand for the playing of our national anthem.” Coach Glover didn’t have time to move the team over to the bench before the anthem began to play. There was some confusion, and players started following what their captain was doing without understanding why.

“I noticed all of my girls started to kneel and I looked over at them and I said to them, ‘Those that are not understanding why they’re kneeling should get up.’”

Most of the students stood up. But the photo had already been taken and shared.

 

A Population in Transition

Licking Heights Local School District is on the edge of mostly rural Licking County and urban Franklin County in central Ohio. Franklin is home to Columbus, a city experiencing booming growth, and that growth is spreading outward. Last year, this school district was the fastest-growing in central Ohio. Just outside the district, Amazon has built a distribution center that employs more than 4,000, and Facebook has announced a new data center squarely in the district.

In 2011, according to district Superintendent Dr. Philip Wagner, there were about 3,300 students in the district. Today, there are nearly 4,400. Some corners of the state are losing people; central Ohio is becoming an economic engine.

More people of color, including recent immigrants from Somalia and Bhutan, are moving to the area and attending schools in a region that’s historically been majority white. Wagner sees these changes as a way for the district to reimagine itself, but acknowledges that they have work to do.

While the Licking Heights Local School District’s demographics are changing quickly, its student athletes play against many schools where the population has remained relatively unchanged. Its athletic league is in Licking County, which is about 93 percent white.

Enter a basketball team that is predominantly African American, coached by a dynamic African-American woman and includes a student who takes a knee during the national anthem.

Illustration of an angry, red-faced crowd shouting
Illustration by Kelsey Wroten

“Rise Up”

Glover says that, throughout the season, the team was heckled when playing at other schools. It started slowly. At one game folks in the stands shouted, “Caesar!” at players. Glover was confused.

“[The girls] were like, ‘Coach, the talking ape. Caesar.’ I’m like, ‘What?’ ‘Planet of the Apes. His name was Caesar.’” On another occasion, a white player was called a “[n-word] lover.” Glover told her team to ignore them—to “shut them out.”

She worried about her team’s safety. After an argument broke out at one game, the girls were told they should exit from the back of the school. At another game, the opposing team’s coach refused to shake Glover’s hand.

As one player put it in an online report about the season, “You will never know what we had to go through. You were never there during the games.”

And then, sometime in December, a Snapchat exchange between some of Glover’s players and students who apparently attended another school led to the cancellation of a game and the suspension of players from both schools. Students from the other school wrote: “White power,” “[N-word] go home,” “KKK,” “6 [n-words] in a tree is a alabama wind chime” and “The KKK go burn your ass on a cross.”

Things were bad; after the photo was posted they got worse. That’s when the assistant principal shared a song called “Rise Up” with Glover. “I hear this song and I think of you and your girls,” she told her.

The discouraged team gathered around their coach’s cellphone. They listened, transfixed, as Andra Day crooned: “And I’ll rise up / I’ll rise like the day / I’ll rise up / I’ll rise unafraid / I’ll rise up.”

The team felt renewed, inspired, ready to play again.

My mother’s middle school story and my daughter’s middle school story should not be the same.

The Fabric of the Community

Superintendent Wagner says the school district has hired a diversity consultant. The Licking County League is revising its sportsmanship guidelines and plans to do some interteam work next season. There’s a consensus, he says, across the district and in the athletic league that there needs to be an intervention.

But he wants to be intentional about what they do. “You can’t treat things like you’re checking a box,” he says. “It’s got to be interwoven into the fabric of the community.”

Some of the players’ parents hope the events of the season serve as a wake-up call for the district and the league. Rokeidra Currie and Santino Torres, who each have a daughter on the team, say they didn’t want to miss a game because they worried for their daughters’ safety.

It was stressful. “Your heart’s pounding. You’re hot. You’re sweating,” Currie says. She’s relieved the season is over.

Currie is originally from mideast Ohio. “My mom was one of the first black students integrated into a middle school there, so my mother’s middle school story and my daughter’s middle school story should not be the same.”

Torres and Currie are grateful for the school’s guidance counselor and for Glover; both were invaluable to them during the season. But they are even more grateful for the team itself.

“There was never any divide,” Currie says. “They went through it all as a team. They stuck together as a team, and they supported each other as a team.” In her estimation, they handled it better than most adults would have.

“And they’ve shaken things up. I tell my daughter and the other girls on the team, I’m like, ‘You guys have no idea how big of an impact you guys are having on the school by just being brave enough.’”

 

The Future Is Now

On a cold day in February 2018, the Licking Heights Middle School team played their first game following the social media storm. The girls walked out on the court wearing black shirts emblazoned with the words “Rise Up.” Three sheriff’s deputies were conspicuously present, but so was a large crowd that had shown up to support the girls.

It was the epitome of what’s good about sport—a close game between two teams that love playing the game. The Licking Heights girls won. They shot from the field, playing hard and aggressive; they picked each other up when they fell.

They were also awkward at times, a reminder that they are, in fact, middle schoolers. And yet, unafraid and strong.

Coach Glover says this is what it may have looked like from the stands, but it was more complicated on the court and on the bench. She and her players had noticed those sheriff’s deputies. Her players asked her, “Wait a minute, Coach—are we OK?”

The fear her girls felt rattled her as well, she says, and made her wonder about every person who entered the gym.

This is not what Glover expected during her first season coaching this team. It has been an eye-opener, she says, coming in at a moment when there’s such division in the United States and encountering people who feel emboldened to speak hate aloud.

But throughout the season, she says, she was proud of her players. “I’m proud of the fact that at no point did we jump out of character.”

Glover is looking forward to next season. She’s excited about the group of seventh-graders moving up. They ended the season with “Rise Up,” and she hopes to start the next with a new theme: “The Future Is Now.” She admits she’s not just talking about basketball. She’s talking about America.

“This group of young ladies, they are the future. And so, the future is now. One, two, three,” she says, clapping her hands. “The future is now!”

Shuler is a writer and associate professor of English at Denison University in Ohio.

Hate in schools is on the rise. How will your school respond if it happens in your cafeteria, hallway or basketball court? Our publication Responding to Hate and Bias at School can help you plan for the worst and take the steps necessary to prepare, prevent and protect.