A youth football team that had its season canceled amid fallout for protesting during the national anthem is starting anew, and with the backing of an NFL player coalition.
Malcolm Jenkins and Torrey Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles; New England Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty; and free-agent wide receiver Anquan Boldin headline a group of players that has donated $20,000 to help fund the inaugural season for the Southeast Texas Oilers, an organization made up of leaders from the Beaumont Bulls program that created a stir when the 11-12 boys team took a knee during the national anthem in September.
Head coach Rah Rah Barber was suspended soon after the protest, and the Bay Area Football League canceled the team's remaining games as a number of kids opted to stay away in support of their coach.
Parents and coaches created a new organization and joined a different league: the Texas Youth Football Association, the largest in Texas and the second largest in the nation. The Southeast Texas Oilers already have 140 kids ages 4-13 in the program, including more than 50 who came over from the Beaumont Bulls, according to Barber.
Jenkins and Boldin became aware of this initiative while participating on a panel organized by the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality during Super Bowl week in Houston. After meeting Barber and members of the senior football team, the NFL players helped ensure they had the resources they needed to get the new venture off the ground.
"We wanted to make sure that we sent those kids the message that it's OK to stand up for what you believe in," Jenkins told ESPN. "We didn't want them to walk away from the season feeling punished for trying to do the right thing. We wanted to make sure that was rewarded and acknowledged and encouraged, so that was our main motivation for helping."
The money donated by the NFL players covered the cost of helmets, shoulder pads, tackling dummies, blocking pads, a hydration station, field striking kit, down markers and footballs. The equipment is scheduled to arrive in the next few days.
Southeast Texas Oilers vice president April Parkerson estimated it would have taken a year and a half of fundraising and $10,000 of their own money to get the organization off the ground if the player coalition hadn't stepped in.
"They made it possible for my kids to play football," Barber said.
Parkerson said her 11-year-old son Jaelun approached Barber about following the example set by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and taking a knee during the national anthem to bring about awareness after the death of Philandro Castile, who was shot by a police officer in Minnesota.
"We thought about it long and hard because we are a military family," April Parkerson said. "We had the support of friends and family and we all believe in doing the right thing and we all took a knee together. It just took off from there."
After a meeting, the team decided to stage its demonstration before a game on Sept. 10. They notified officials of their intended actions and appeared to have the support of the Bay Area Football League, but Parkerson said that support quickly cooled amid the controversy that followed.
Death threats poured in via social media. Per The Washington Post, "parents, coaches and officials clashed at meetings where they discussed how to deal with the threatening messages."
Barber contends his suspension was directly related to the team's protests. League athletic director DeCarlos Anderson told KBMT that the coach was suspended for trying to move on from two assistant coaches when they said they didn't want to continue with the protest. As the number of players dwindled after Barber's suspension, the rest of the team's season was canceled.
Fading from the headlines and no longer having an outlet to play football, the kids "felt forgotten," Parkerson said. However, things turned around when they were invited to the town hall event in Houston and got the backing of NFL players.
"I believe it's important for our youth to have a voice. To put a muzzle on them is a disservice to everyone," Smith said in a statement. "We must continue to educate them and empower them to be the leaders of tomorrow. They need to know that their influence transcends the football field. Protesting in a non-traditional way shouldn't keep our youth from playing the game we all love."
The Southeast Texas Oilers senior team has been doing strength and conditioning since February. The organization, led by Barber, holds free camps every weekend for kids of all ages. Practice officially starts on July 10, with the season set to kick off on Labor Day.
Their protest is expected to take a different form when games begin, as the team has decided not to play the "The Star-Spangled Banner" before home games.
"It's not a song that we will be playing at the beginning of our football games," Barber said. "We might play 'God Bless America' [or] 'America the Beautiful.' As an organization, as a board, we all agreed it's not an appropriate song. It's a degrading song."
Barber cited the normally unsung third verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that references slaves.
Kaepernick's decision to demonstrate during the national anthem has had a deep ripple effect. Other NFL players like Jenkins, who raised a clenched fist in the air during the anthem for all but one game in 2016, joined in protest. So did players on the college and youth levels.
"As role models, when you step out there and you demonstrate something, especially something as big as what happened last year with the protests in the NFL. ... I think it's definitely the responsibility of those out in front to think about the impact that it has on everyone behind them," Jenkins said.
"Because some of these kids and coaches and youth teams don't have the same protections and securities that we have. And so I think it's definitely a responsibility to at least thoroughly explain why you demonstrated, why you're doing what you're doing, so that people understand the risks and consequences, and that you also encourage them and support them."