On a Friday evening in early September, Rodney Axson Jr. went out to the field with the rest of the Brunswick High School varsity football team. The Blue Devils were a little over an hour away from their campus in Brunswick, Ohio, and about to play a game against Austintown-Fitch, a high school in Youngstown. It was only their second game of the season.
As the pre-game national anthem began, Axson, a senior backup quarterback, and two of his teammates knelt in protest. All three are African-American, and their decision to make a public statement in the manner of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick came after a few of their white teammates said, in reference to an Austintown Fitch squad that is largely made up of black players, "We have to get those niggers."
In the immediate moment, few seemed to notice. Most students and parents in the stands didn't realize what Axson and his teammates had done. Brunswick head coach Luke Beal found out when an assistant coach texted him after the game. Axson's parents, Rodney Sr. and Danielle, weren't at the game and didn't know anything until later on that night, when their son sent them screenshots of people calling him and his teammates things like "worthless niggers" on social media.
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Over the next week, word of the protest spread—on social apps, via text, and ultimately through a report by a Cleveland television news station, which included a handwritten note posted on a Brunswick student's Snapchat account. It said "Fuck Rodney," the N-word four times, and the phrase "Lets lynch Niggers."
"I try to ignore a lot of it, but it does hurt," Axson told VICE Sports. "I'm 17 years old, so for me to go on Twitter and see grown-ups say things like how I'm bad for America and the country, it hurts."
When Kaepernick took a knee during the playing of the anthem before a preseason NFL game in August in order to protest racial injustice in America, he touched off an ongoing national argument over race, patriotism, activism, and the place of all three within sports. Other athletes followed suit, from professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe to members of the Miami Dolphins to high school volleyball and football players in Texas.
The protests have been met with praise and scorn, supportive statements and derisive rants. Back in Brunswick, a southwestern Cleveland suburb that according to the most recent U.S. Census is 95.5 percent white and just 1.2 percent black, Axson has experienced a wide range of reactions: teammates and coaches who were unsure how to approach him; players from a rival high school making monkey noises at him after a game; an investigation by school administrators; a separate hate crime investigation by local police; national media coverage; and a troubling realization, for the first time in his young life, that others will write him off because of his skin color.
"I didn't think we'd be in 2016 dealing with this," said Axson's mother, Danielle. "As parents, we've seen and heard so much for and against this issue and we have to send him out of here every day into a city where we don't know what to expect everyday—who's going to stay something to him, who's going to approach him. It's overwhelming."
According to Rodney Axson Sr., his son's decision to take a knee was prompted by an exchange in the Brunswick locker room prior to the game against Austintown-Fitch. Two of Axson's teammates were saying that they planned to use the slur that night. Axson confronted them.
"It was a few players in the locker room saying we're going to use the N-word with a hard 'r' tonight," Axson Sr. told Cleveland's KCBD. "They didn't know my son was in the locker room. At that time, he came from where he was and approached the guys and said, 'Excuse me, what do you mean by that?'
"They said, 'This don't include you. You're from Brunswick.' He said, 'I'm African-American, it does include me. I appreciate if y'all didn't say that.'"
Axson told his father that some of his teammates continued to use the N-word before the entire team took the field to stand for the anthem. So Axson and two of his African-American teammates dropped to one knee and prayed.
Axson figured he would receive plenty of feedback for the gesture, but he didn't anticipate how rough some of it would get. When his team held their weekly post-game meetings the next day, some players shied away from talking to Axson. His coaches didn't bring up the protest, either.
"They didn't know how they should react or how they should approach me to talk to me, if they wanted to talk to me," Axson said.
Axson's Twitter page became a battlefield. A day after he knelt, user @nathan_wolff tweeted at him, "You ain't never had it rough like that tho Holmes. Keep it real. Don't be capernick. That's fucking gay as fuck." After Axson tweeted about players from rival Medina High School making monkey noises at him after a game, user @Scharschmidt13—whose bio reads "I stand for the national anthem," bracketed by two American flag emojis—tweeted, "Why do you feel it's necessary to tweet everything that happens in your life."
Five days after the game, Axson tweeted a screenshot of the handwritten note featuring derogatory terms, an apologetic text from the girl who had posted it on her Snapchat account, and a message to everyone who thinks he is "ignorant," "just wants attention," and "doesn't face any discrimination" because he's from Brunswick.
"I believe racial inequality is real & living," Axson wrote.
In his tweet, Axson tagged three Brunswick school administrators: superintendent Michael Mayell, head high school principal Michael Draves, and 11th grade assistant principal Keith Merrill. The Brunswick City School District subsequently released a brief statement from Mayell that read, in part, "This is a statement I have never even conceived that I might need to release. I am saddened to have to do so."
Mayell said he was "disappointed" in the students who made racist comments and social media postings, and that "racial slurs and hate speech have no place in the Brunswick schools and those found complicit in such misconduct will be dealt with accordingly." He did not make any statement in support of Axson or his fellow protesters.
Brunswick High launched an investigation, and ultimately suspended four members of the school's football team for violating the school's code of conduct. Axson, his family, and Cleveland NAACP leaders reportedly met with the Brunswick Police Department. At the Blue Devils' first home game following Axson's decision to kneel, a group of white and black supporters from nearby Cleveland Heights, Parma, Oberlin, Euclid, and Lakewood wore black T-shirts and carried signs reading "Justice For All" and "I am Rodney Axson."
"I came out to support a kid that looks like me," one of the supporters told Cleveland.com. "Although he lives in Brunswick and I live in the hood, we still wake up every day with the same skin color. We'll always have the same struggles."
In the weeks following Axson's protest, Draves, the Brunswick High principal, attempted to deal with the controversy by discussing empathy. Beal, the school's football coach, said that Axson had the constitutional right to kneel and protest, but that his immediate focus was on rebuilding his team into a cohesive unit.
In an effort to do so, Beal had two speakers—Jason Hunter, a local minister and the father of a former Brunswick player, and former NFL punter Reggie Hodges—speak to Axson and his teammates. The talks were aimed at coming together as a team, and moving past the protest.
"At this point, we need to become more of a family," Beal told VICE Sports at the time. "We always talk about being a family, but this is a point where something bad like this happens, you have to find a way to rely on each other to get through it.
"The big thing is trying to heal the wounds. With high school athletes, this is not something you'd expect to deal with. Right now, there are all sorts of racial issues taking place and a high school and a football team are kind of a microcosm of society in general. We're trying to use this as a teachable moment and help these kids deal with them better as they come young adults."
Beal has since been fired as head coach, although he will remain a teacher at BHS. The handling of the protest is not believed to be part of the reason he was fired.
For Axson, going to school became, in his words, "awkward," in part because both Brunswick High and the surrounding community are predominantly white. At the school, there are only two black employees, a counselor and a site manager. The school district administration is all white. The football team has four black players on a roster of more than 100 athletes, and is coached by an all-white staff.
Axson was somewhat disappointed in the speakers Beal brought in, because he didn't feel they addressed the racism his protest was aimed at. "They didn't bring up me taking a knee once," Axson said. "They just talked about how they heard we were a good team, they know we have good players and how we have to continue to work together and don't give up on our season."
Similarly, Danielle Axson was frustrated that the school's code of conduct does not directly address racism. "Going forward, things should be handled differently," she said. "If you read their code of conduct, they address alcohol, they address drugs. They don't address anything of this nature. They're flying by the seats of their pants trying to decide how to reprimand."
With the help of a lawyer, Axson's family submitted a report to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The report alleges that Axson was prevented from ever having a chance to play quarterback on racial grounds, citing evidence of Axson's time starting at another high school and his recruitment by Division II colleges. The report also states, "With the permissive racist mentality shown by Brunswick city school officials and, in particular, Coach Beal, any objective public school district would have fired the coach. At Brunswick, he was kept on."
Axson knows that his decision to protest has changed his life. People in town and at school now know him as the "kid who knelt." He has been covered by national outlets such as Complex and the New York Daily News. Axson's father told a local television station that his son "lost a lot of friends and also gained a lot of friends that he didn't have as friends through this," something Rodney Jr. elaborated on during an interview with Cleveland Magazine.
"The positive feedback I've been getting is amazing," Axson told the magazine. "I've been getting mail from people, tweets, and it just means a lot to me. With the amount of friends I've gained, I lost two times more. I've lost a lot of friends at school, and it's weird.
"It feels like I'm living in a bubble sometimes. I've had a lot of people on Twitter coming at me saying I'm ignorant, and I should leave the country if I don't like it. I've also had threats."
Looking back, Axson told VICE Sports that he "wouldn't change anything he did," even though he feels that he lost his "entire senior year of high school" to the controversy. He believes that he stood up for what's right, for an issue that's bigger than himself or his school. Despite the blowback he suffered on social media, he still signs his tweets with a simple hashtag: #LoveYall.
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