When Christian Brothers College High School head football coach Scott Pingel saw his sport was thrust into discussion of some of America’s most difficult topics, he didn’t let his team shy away from them.
Instead, he and the Cadet football team embraced them.
Since late August, football has become a hotbed for America’s discourse on racial issues, following NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” the 49er said in late August.
Kaepernick has become a trend setter, with numerous athletes, ranging from the amateur to professional levels, following suit. Sporting events across the country are now marked with athletes kneeling, sitting or raising their fists during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
As more athletes have embraced the cause, public outrage has grown. Kaepernick has faced death threats. Social media has become flooded with vile and racist insults targeted at athletes who protest the anthem.
These threats and insults, while coming from a slim minority of Americans, might seem to validate Kaepernick’s cause.
All of it combined certainly spotlights a divided nation.
How can this division be gapped? Where do we even start?
Pingel’s football team started that task for us.
“Football players have been part of a national conversation going on right now that covers some pretty heavy topics: prejudice, race relations, social justice,” Pingel said in a recent team video posted to YouTube. “It’s unfortunate but these are issues that affect all of us.”
Pingel’s players didn’t sit around and let the division continue to swirl. Instead, they decided to come together and discuss the issues.
They did so knowing it would involve tough conversations. They did so knowing they wouldn’t agree at times. Most importantly, they also did so knowing they could learn from each other.
“Our school and our team are like the real world. We are made up of guys from all parts of St. Louis,” players say in the team video. “We come from different backgrounds and have different experiences. We don’t always agree on everything but we listen to each other. We learn from each other.”
When the Cadets played my alma mater, St. Louis University High School last week, they showed what those conversations put forth: unity.
The image of the night was not players forgoing the anthem.
Instead, it was of Cadets entering the stadium, two-by-two, each player next to another of a different race. Their hands, black and white, were locked and lifted in the air, exemplifying the hashtag used in their team video: #RiseTogether.
The team, which won a state championship in 2014 and was the runner-up a year ago, put on a clinic against my Jr. Bills in a 48-21 rout.
But the biggest lesson they taught last Friday night transcends the gridiron. They showed how to #RiseTogether. It’s now our turn to do the same.