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Fort Bragg school officials reverse ban on ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts (w/video)

FORT BRAGG - Faced with litigation threats and growing public opposition, Fort Bragg school officials Monday afternoon reversed their controversial ban on athletes wearing T-shirts with the slogan, “I Can’t Breathe,” during pregame warm-ups at a three-day high school basketball tournament.

But the implications of that decision remained unclear late Monday night, with the Mendocino boys coach vowing to prevent any of his athletes from playing in the tournament if they wear the T-shirts during warm-up and the girls team still awaiting word on whether they would be able to participate in any way.

“They cannot play in the game if they don’t wear their uniform,” boys varsity coach Jim Young said. “I’m not banning anything. I’m requiring them to wear a uniform.”

Aimed at keeping political battles off the basketball court, the ban instead inflamed a local debate about the nationwide protest over police killings of unarmed black men. The T-shirts are being worn in support of the family of Eric Garner, the New York black man who died after police put him in a chokehold. He reportedly told police “I Can’t Breathe” multiple times before he died.

But some local residents say the move is disrespectful of area law enforcement and comes at a time when the community is still mourning Mendocino County Sheriff’s Deputy Ricky Del Fiorentino, who was killed earlier this year by an Oregon fugitive on a crime spree. Del Fiorentino had been a wrestling coach at Fort Bragg High.

Members of the Mendocino High School girls varsity team, who became the focus of the ban and a vitriolic online debate, lauded what they called a victory for free speech.

“I’m just happy our voices were heard,” said Naomi Baker, a player on the girls team.

But they also said they regretted that some people assumed they were being critical of local law enforcement.

“It was not intended” for local officers, said team member Jin Jackson.

The ban prevented the girls basketball team from playing in the tournament because they refused to comply with the prohibition. School officials said they banned the girls because they feared the debate could turn violent and they did not have the resources to protect them. Three members of a private security company, Lear Asset Management, patrolled the school grounds Monday but there were no signs of trouble.

The ban since has garnered international attention and allegations by the American Civil Liberties Union and other critics that it illegally prevented free speech and protest.

The Fort Bragg School District dropped the ban in the face of threatened litigation and growing opposition, including a Monday morning protest by members of the team and some 50 supporters outside of the high school, while the tournament was underway. “I think it’s important to support the girls team,” Caspar resident Lynette Short said Monday. Several protesters carried signs proclaiming “black and brown lives matter” and “I Can’t Breathe.”

“The district did rethink its policy,” said the school district’s attorney, Patrick Wilson. But that doesn’t mean they believe it violated any laws, he said. Litigating the case likely would take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

The girls team learned late Monday that the Fort Bragg Unified School District decided to abandon the ban. The reversal likely comes too late for them to play in the tournament. They already were replaced by a team from Covelo and their first game took place Monday morning.

But discussions currently are underway between the ACLU and school officials to add an additional game for the Mendocino girls team, said Marc Woods, who contacted the ACLU about the case. His son, Connor, is on the Mendocino boys varsity team. Members of the boys team also had been wearing the T-shirts before games but most agreed to adhere to Fort Bragg High’s demand not to wear the T-shirts so they could participate in the tournament. Connor Woods chose not to play rather than comply.

Boys team members also are glad the ban is lifted and at least one expects to exercise his new freedom during Tuesday’s warm-up.

“I’m planning on wearing my shirt,” said Sean Symonds.

Whether he or other players will get that opportunity remains to be seen.

Young said Monday evening that only players who wear their school-issued uniforms will be allowed to play in Tuesday’s 9 a.m. game.

He said he heard that Fort Bragg officials rescinded the ban, but said he decides what uniforms his team wears, not them and not other school officials.

“As the coach, I’m choosing what uniform they’ll be wearing tomorrow,” Young said.

Young said he allowed the team to wear the T-shirts during warm-up for a Dec. 16 game at Fort Bragg, but would not allow it for Tuesday's warm-up or game. He declined to say why.

“Different game, different uniform,” he said. “It’s not their choice this time.”

Young said he didn’t know whether any of his players would try to wear their “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during warm-ups, but said those who do won’t be playing in the game. He said he considered the warm-up period part of the game.

Marc Woods said he’s angry and baffled by Young’s position given Fort Bragg’s clear statement that the ban had been lifted. He said he’s aware of several players who want to wear their shirts during warm-ups.

“Are they going to shut down the whole basketball program?” Woods said.

Karen Boyd, the First Amendment lawyer who represents Woods’ son, Connor, said she was also confused by Young’s position.

“If coach Young benches players because of the shirts, that would be a violation of freedom of speech, and that would subject him to a lawsuit,” Boyd said.

Young was named in the restraining order Boyd was prepared to file in federal court Monday because the Mendocino High coach had effectively adopted the same position as the Fort Bragg officials, she said. She doubts Mendocino school district officials would back Young given the circumstances. They have assured players they wouldn’t be subjected to any “punishment” as a result of expressing political views, she said.

Young’s position also raises the obvious question of what he’ll do if his players don’t comply, she said.

“As a practical matter, if all of the kids show up in the T-shirts, is he going to forfeit the game?” Boyd said. “That would be unusual behavior for a coach.”

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