Mendocino school principal declines team's makeup game after T-shirt protest (w/video)

There will be no new game for the Mendocino High School girls’ basketball team that was uninvited from a tournament when the teens refused to stop wearing “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during warm-ups.

The ban on the T-shirts was lifted late Monday, but the girls’ team already had been replaced by another in Fort Bragg’s annual three-day charity tournament. Fort Bragg High School officials late Wednesday morning offered to arrange a consolation game for the team, but Mendocino school administrators turned them down.

“We respectfully declined,” said Mendocino High School Principal Gail Dickenson. The tournament ends today and the team has its regular league games beginning next week, she said.

The decision not to pursue a new game came as a surprise to team members and their coach, who said they were not consulted.

“That’s a bummer,” said coach Caedyn Feehan. “I’m sure I could have had a team put together; my kids just wanted to play ball.”

“I’m sad we couldn’t play. It would have been a good end” to the saga, said the team’s co-captain, Kiera Poehlmann.

The three-day charity tournament attracted international attention when the Fort Bragg Unified School District uninvited the Mendocino girls’ team because they refused to stop wearing the controversial T-shirts during pregame warm-ups. School officials said they feared that a heated social media battle over the shirts would spread to the tournament and potentially become violent.

The ban triggered international news coverage and a peaceful, brief protest in support of the girls on the first day of the tournament.

The Mendocino boys’ team also had been wearing the shirts, but a majority of them agreed to comply with the ban so they could play in the annual tournament. They did not wear the shirts on Tuesday or Wednesday, after the ban was reversed. Team member Connor Woods said Wednesday that not everyone on the team wanted to wear the shirts, so none did in order to present a unified front on the court.

The ban was lifted under threat of litigation from an attorney hired by Woods’ dad and the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU called the ban illegal and demanded that the school district add a game so that the girls could play.

The ACLU attorney involved in the case could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Fort Bragg officials and coaches also were not available Wednesday.

The debate has thrust the basketball teams and their communities into the spotlight as a national dialogue and protests continue over the killings of black men by police. “I Can’t Breathe” is just one of the slogans protesters have adopted. NBA superstars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose have worn T-shirts with the phrase in pregame warm-ups. They were the last words of Eric Garner, the New York man who died in July after a police officer put him in a chokehold.

Like elsewhere in the nation, local law enforcement has taken umbrage with the protests. The Mendocino County Deputy Sheriff’s Association addressed both the local and national demonstrations on its Facebook page Wednesday. It earlier had made comments on other social media sites.

“We do not support their actions,” it states, referring to the Mendocino teams’ decision to wear the shirts. “Simply put, the Mendocino County Deputy Sheriff’s Association does not agree with the myriad assumptions and opinions implicit in the use of the currently fashionable phrase, ‘I Can’t Breathe.’ While not perfect, law enforcement officers locally and across the country provide an essential service under often difficult circumstances. To suggest, as some do, that there is an epidemic of ‘police brutality’ is patently false.”

The association’s president, Craig Walker, said the March murder of Mendocino County Deputy Sheriff Ricky Del Fiorentino by an Oregon fugitive contributed to the association deciding to take a stand on the local protests. Del Fiorentino was a well-respected member of the coast communities and a popular coach at the high school.

Members of the girls’ team have said their stand has nothing to do with local law enforcement, which they respect. But Walker said the general spirit of the protests lumps all law enforcement together.

“It’s not a message that starts or stops at the Mendocino County line,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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