Fort Bragg High asks team from Mendocino to stay home over T-shirts

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A high school basketball tournament set to begin Monday in Fort Bragg has been thrust into the national discussion over police killings of unarmed black men, after Mendocino High’s girls team was disinvited because its players refused to stop wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “I Can’t Breathe” during warmups.

The debate has pitted socially progressive high school students from Mendocino against a blue-collar Fort Bragg community still mourning the killing of Ricky Del Fiorintino, a Mendocino County sheriff’s deputy and popular wrestling coach at Fort Bragg High who was gunned down in March by an Oregon fugitive.

The controversy over the T-shirts, which bear the last words of Eric Garner, the New York man who died after a police officer put him in a chokehold, has amplified a fierce athletic rivalry between the coastal towns. With invective circulating on social media such as Facebook, the Fort Bragg Unified School District decided to invite a girls team from Round Valley in place of the Mendocino girls team. The Cardinals’ boys team will still take part in Monday’s Vern Piver Holiday Classic Tournament, minus one player who preferred to continue protesting.

Fort Bragg school officials said they feared a tournament designed to raise money for the basketball program would instead become an emotionally charged political debate that could result in violence.

“We want all athletes who wish to participate to have the opportunity to do so, but as the hosts of the event we also need to ensure that we can protect the safety and well-being of everyone in attendance,” Fort Bragg High School Principal Rebbecca Walker said in a statement.

“The only way that is possible is to make this event politically neutral and ask that all involved put their personal beliefs about a situation that occurred on the other side of our country on hold for the short time they are participating. If a team cannot or is unwilling to do that, we have no other choice but to exclude them from the event,” Walker said.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said Saturday he had heard of no credible threats of violence regarding the tournament, even though the shirts have stirred up considerable controversy along the coast.

The decision to exclude the girls has left some players with the Mendocino program perplexed and frustrated, as both the boys and girls teams wore the shirts during warmups before Dec. 16 games at Fort Bragg.

The players on their own placed a $300 order over the Internet for the T-shirts, similar to those that have been worn in pre-game exercises by NBA superstars such as LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant.

The NBA players wore the T-shirts in support of the family of Garner, who died this summer. A grand jury decided not to indict the officer who placed the chokehold on Garner, setting off nationwide protests. Those followed the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man who was killed in August after an altercation with a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.

Naomi Baker, 17, a junior guard on the Mendocino girls team, said Saturday the players are standing up to speak out against brutality by some police officers and that the T-shirt should not be construed as anti-police.

“You can’t say all cops are good ... you can’t say all cops are bad,” Baker said. “We are just trying to say something on police brutality.”

Baker said she heard no opposition from the Fort Bragg players or parents after the Dec. 16 game, nor was there any vocal opposition when the girls team wore the shirts during a three-day tournament at Geysersville High School from Dec. 18-20.

Later, the team learned a few people may have emailed school officials seeking a ban on the shirts.

Mendocino Unified School District Superintendent Jason Morse said in an email Saturday he understood the concern from Fort Bragg officials. He also expressed distress about hurtful comments posted about his students on social media.

“I believe engaging them in meaningful dialogue, as our school administration has already started with both teams, is a good first step,” Morse said. “We will be meeting with our students after the school vacation to hear what they have to say and work with them to ensure their voices are being heard in a productive, positive way.”

Morse said the T-shirt protest was a player decision “and in fact was a complete surprise to our basketball coaches and school administration.”

The issue has stirred debate, at times vitriolic, among Mendocino Coast residents on social media, especially on the Facebook page Mendocinosportplus.

On Dec. 21, following the killings of two New York City police officers the day before, the Mendocino County Deputy Sheriff’s Association also addressed the issue in a Facebook post.

The post called the actions by the Mendocino teams “very discouraging and disrespectful in our eyes.” It also noted the death of Del Fiorentino. Del Fiorentino had been a member of the Fort Bragg Police Department for 10 years before joining the Sheriff’s Office and was president of the local Police Activities League. A memorial service for the deputy in Fort Bragg drew more than 2,000 people, including law enforcement personnel from around the state.

In response, members of both the boys and girls teams sent a letter on Christmas Eve to the association and members of the community, saying their actions should not be interpreted as a protest against the local sheriff’s office and lauding Del Fiorentino.

“We appreciate police officers and their difficult and sometimes dangerous job, but at the same time we condemn police brutality that does exist in our country and feel even small communities like ours should promote awareness of such crucial matters,” the team members wrote.

As the issue generated more controversy, Fort Bragg school officials made their decision. Bruce Triplett, the Fort Bragg High School athletic director, said Saturday that he had heard that supporters of the local police may have been planning to wear their own T-shirts at the tournament.

When informed of the decision about the shirts, Mendocino’s boys team decided to attend the tournament without wearing the shirts, with the exception of junior Connor Woods.

Marc Woods, Connor’s father, said his son wanted to sit out the game because he viewed it a violation of his First Amendment rights. Woods said he has reached out to lawyers to determine if there could be a legal case.

Woods said he and his son will be at Monday’s game, and that he plans to hand out copies of the Constitution in the parking lot and ask spectators to discuss the issue with their children.

“These kids are not bad kids. ... I’ve traveled with them out to games,” Wood said. “The pushback is just way out of line, in my opinion.”

The girls team took a vote, Baker said, with only five players wanting to attend the tournament under the new conditions. The squad had to make a decision by Dec. 24. Baker said girls coach Caedyn Feehan expressed concern about taking a squad with no substitutes for a three-day tournament.

Feehan said in an email that Mendocino High School athletic director Noah Gold ultimately made the decision that five players were not enough to sustain play, though it turned out the team was disinvited.

“So many of us girls stood strong and we just said, ‘No,’” Baker said. “They are taking away our rights. They are taking away our freedom of speech.”

Triplett said he has no problem with the Mendocino girls team taking a stand on the politically contentious issue of police brutality, and does not believe in squelching free speech, even though he said he has been labeled as a racist in at least one social media post.

“It just doesn’t have to be inside the gymnasium,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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