Anthem protest ends season for Texas youth football team

As adults spar, 11- and 12-year-olds see their games canceled

As the streetlights flickered along Meadowbrook Drive in Beaumont, Texas, earlier this week, the children running around the yard in front of one of the homes are growing restless. The Hot-N-Ready pizzas from Little Caesars just aren’t cutting it anymore and Wolverine, the Winter Soldier and the Pink Power Ranger are ready to start trick-or-treating. Among the throng are eight boys wearing football jerseys.

These aren’t costumes, though. The boys are members of the Beaumont Bulls, and while you wouldn’t know the names on the back of their uniforms, this is perhaps the most talked-about youth football team in the country.

Monica Dean, the team mom hosting the gathering, recognizes the moment that’s unfolding.

“Let’s take the team photo we never got a chance to take,” she said.

Ironically, photos and video of the team have been circulating nationally for two months. On Sept. 10, this team of 11- and 12-year-olds in Southeast Texas followed San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s lead and took a knee while the national anthem was playing before one of their games. Images of that protest against racial injustice and police brutality soon went viral, drawing attention from news outlets, activists and Kaepernick himself.

But the attention wasn’t all positive. Many criticized the predominantly African-American team in ugly terms. And the backlash prompted sharp disagreements among some of the coaches and between many of the families and the executive board of the Bulls organization, which sponsors teams at several age levels.

After the team took a knee for a second time on Sept. 17, the fallout hit a fever pitch. “Rah-Rah” Barber, the head coach, was dismissed by the Bulls’ leadership, prompting 14 of the team’s 19 players to refuse to play unless he was reinstated. The executive board forfeited the three games remaining on the team’s schedule.

It’s quite possible that the Beaumont Bulls have faced the harshest consequences of any team in the country, at any level, for kneeling during the national anthem.

The downtown area of Beaumont, Texas.

Walter Iooss for ESPN

That has left some of the players confused as to what they did wrong in exercising their right to protest. At the same time, they are confident that what they did, and the conversation they’ve helped advance, was worth it.

“We took a stand when other people wouldn’t,” said 11-year-old Jaelun Parkerson, a cornerback for the Bulls, nicknamed “Honey Badger” for his style of play and resemblance to Arizona Cardinals star Tyrann Mathieu. “We’re trying to put a change in the world, but other people are scared to put that change in the world.”

Texas youth football team’s lost season. After a Texas youth football team in Beaumont took a knee during the national anthem, a battle over the controversy sparks that ends the team’s season.

Larry Brooks, who played defensive lineman, linebacker and wide receiver, said he felt that something was different about the message coming from children. “I knew some people were going to be mad about it, but I really didn’t worry about it,” the 12-year-old said.

As the houses in the neighborhood start to close up shop on trick-or-treating, the families take a drive to a nearby haunted house. Waiting in a line of more than 100 people, the Bulls point out the dead pirates on top of the garage and the Wicked Witch of the West sitting in a lawn chair inside the garage. Then, there’s the roar of the chain saw that has groups of kids sprinting out of the home every few minutes.

As the boys enter the darkened house, one of them fires up his teammates – all of them without a team to play on – before walking into the unknown: “Let’s get it, Bulls!”

Tall and wiry, Barber, 41, is a chemical inspector for Orkin. Despite his nickname, he’s not much of a talker. But the boys’ parents champion him as a father figure to several players who are growing up without a dad, covering their league dues and picking them up and dropping them off after every practice and game. A cornerback and wide receiver in high school, he started coaching youth football when his 20-year-old son was 9.

“I’ve been playing sports my whole life and we always stood for the national anthem,” said Barber, who was in his fourth year coaching the Bulls’ senior team. “The protest made me study the history of the anthem. Once I found out about the history of the anthem and heard Kaepernick speak, then I was behind it.”

Before the team’s Sept. 10 game, Barber and assistant coach Alfred Dean had spoken about doing a coaches-only protest, not initially wanting to involve the players. That changed, they said, when a group of players approached Barber during a practice, talking about Kaepernick and showing him a picture of three black women’s volleyball players at West Virginia University Tech who took a knee before a Sept. 7 match.

“It was a surprise,” Barber said, “and it was a good one.”

They had seen the coverage of Kaepernick and those athletes who followed, at all levels of sports, and it resonated with the Beaumont boys. Even before the boys brought it to the field, Jaelun’s mother, April Parkerson, was surprised to learn that her son was taking a knee during the pledge of allegiance every morning at school.

“I was worried and proud, but also amazed he made that decision at 11 and didn’t feel the need to talk to his mom about it,” she said. “He knew he was doing the right thing.”

In the two months since the Bulls first captured the national spotlight, adults on both sides of the increasingly heated argument have been in a tug-of-war for control of the narrative. On one side are the coaches and parents of the boys, who supported what they say was the players’ decision – and the players’ decision only – to research what Kaepernick’s protest was about and follow his example.

“They knew more information than I thought an 11- or 12-year-old kid would know,” said Dean, who is Larry’s father. “They looked it up online and saw it on TV. You can YouTube anything now. They’re not like us, who were naïve about these issues involving injustice growing up.”

On the other side are a smaller group of parents and the executive leadership of the Bulls’ organization, who say the coaches and parents coerced the children into doing something they didn’t fully understand as part of “a scheme” to get media attention.

“I thought they were doing it for the cause instead of the attention,” said DeCarlos Anderson, the father of one of the boys on the team, athletic director of the organization and husband of the president, Seterria Anderson. “Instead, they were looking for their 15 minutes of fame.”

There isn’t a lot the two sides agree on, but one thing is certain: The Andersons and the Bay Area Football League, in which the Bulls played, were told in advance about the Sept. 10 protest and didn’t object at the time. One of the Bulls’ assistant coaches, though, hadn’t gotten word of what was coming.

As the players got down on one knee, Derrick Joseph, who also had a son on the team, said he had no idea it was happening.

“Using 11- and 12-year-olds is not the way to protest,” said Joseph, a Marine veteran who did not kneel. “You don’t take kids into war. They’re not 18. Youth football is not the platform.” He added: “These kids don’t know what injustice is.”

Looking around at the team, Dean, an Army veteran, saw it differently.

“People say it was disrespectful for us to kneel, but as a veteran, I don’t think it is disrespectful,” Dean said. “You’re always going to get some negative backlash in whatever you do in life.”

Whatever concern Joseph may have had over the demonstration was drowned out by the initial flood of positive letters, emails, text messages, tweets, Facebook messages, shares and likes. It caught the attention of NFL players such as Kaepernick and Houston Texans offensive tackle Duane Brown, who has been raising a fist during the national anthem. (Brown is hoping to host the team at a home game this season.)

“Our children wanted to be among the first of their age group to make a difference,” April Parkerson said. “Children want the right to be able to go play in the city park and not be shot at 12 years old.”

Soon, though, the backlash arrived in the form of death and lynching threats against their children. The racial history of Southeast Texas is well-documented – and never too far from some residents’ minds. Vidor, once a “sundown town,” is less than 11 miles away. Just 70 miles north is Jasper, stained by the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. In June 1943, rape allegations involving a black man and a white woman in Beaumont sparked a three-day riot in which a white mob destroyed black neighborhoods.

That history isn’t lost on Parkerson, who is white and whose husband is black.

“This is the South. Us having our black children take a knee basically against white America has made that ugliness come out, that hate come out,” she said. “But the love and support and kindness has also come from all over.”

But Anderson, who is black, said the disagreement over the boys’ protest isn’t about race and he thought the kneeling had become a publicity stunt.

Jaelun Parkerson plays catch with his dad and brothers and friend Kyle Gillroy front of his home. Jealun is a member of the Beaumont Bulls senior youth football team from Beaumont, Texas.

Jaelun Parkerson plays catch with his dad and brothers and friend Kyle Gillroy front of his home. Jealun is a member of the Beaumont Bulls senior youth football team from Beaumont, Texas.

Walter Iooss for ESPN

Regardless, the dispute within the football organization escalated quickly. The Andersons advised the team not to kneel again before their Sept. 17 game. But they did anyway.

What happened next is a struggle for control of the narrative:

Several of the parents and coaches say the Bulls’ leadership threatened to kick anyone off the field who took a knee. (Anderson denies this.)

Joseph, the assistant coach, says Barber was pushing his own beliefs on the players, dividing the team. (Barber denies this.)

“[Seterria Anderson] wanted me to tell my parents not to protest and I told her I couldn’t do that,” Barber said. “The parents are supporting their kids, which are the kids I coach. It’s ultimately the kids’ decision.”

Barber, Dean and some of the parents say the coach was suspended for the Oct. 1 game. Anderson says that Barber had already been dismissed permanently after a special meeting with the executive board on Sept. 26 for improperly removing Joseph as an assistant coach.

According to a couple of the parents, the national anthem wasn’t played at the Oct. 1 game. Instead, there was a silent flag-folding ceremony before the game, during which the boys kneeled.

On Oct. 3, team picture day came and went without 14 players and all of the coaching staff showing up, with parents concerned about the safety of their children moving forward. Shortly thereafter, the Bulls’ executive board forfeited the remaining part of the season.

Larry Brooks of the Beaumont Bulls senior youth football team plays basketball with his brothers and sister in his back yard in Beaumont, Texas.

Larry Brooks of the Beaumont Bulls senior youth football team plays basketball with his brothers and sister in his back yard in Beaumont, Texas.

Walter Iooss for ESPN

“If kids are being coerced to [kneel], I can’t roll with that,” said Anderson. “If they understand what they’re doing, I have no problem with that. But once I realized it was the adults’ idea and not the kids’, I stopped supporting Coach Barber and the team.”

What do the players think? Those who spoke to The Undefeated remain sad their season ended early. And they sound like kids who are aware of why they were protesting.

“[A] lot of black people have lost their lives to white cops and no one is doing anything about it,” said nose guard Treyvon Mims.

“I want to be someone in life,” said quarterback Trealyn Porchia. “I want to make my parents proud.”

Ma’khel Hockless, a wide receiver, said, “I’m hoping the protest can help end racism.”

The back-and-forth that’s played out in Beaumont has damaged the reputation of the league and the team.

“No one is realizing how bad this looks,” said Dalana Bennett, vice president of the Beaumont Bulls’ organization, who declined to share her opinion on the Bulls kneeling. (Barber is married to her cousin.) “It looks bad. It looks horrible. … Every adult in this situation needs to step back and realize this situation could have been handled better.”

Right before he and his teammates enter the haunted house, Zachary Broussard, a two-way lineman, made one last plea for Barber to join his team. Barber isn’t having it.

“Hell, no, I ain’t coming in,” their coach said through a laugh and a smile.

As the boys walk through the exhibit, the personalities of each of the players is on full display. Zachary points in amazement at the makeup on the zombies. Treyvon is talking trash to every monster he passes, especially Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees. Larry can’t help but smile at every corny line from the the homeowner/guide. Jaelun keeps a poker face until a guy dressed as Dracula pops up from an elevated casket, prompting all the boys to jump and yell.

Pushing aside curtains covered in fake blood, they enter the butcher’s area that has severed rubber limbs hanging from the ceiling. The boys know the chain saw is coming, but they don’t know when. Then the first rip reverberates off the makeshift walls and a guy dressed as Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes hobbling their way. Like every other group of kids before them, the Beaumont Bulls sprint to the grass outside the home.

Jaelun sticks to his story that he wasn’t scared until the chain saw. Larry can’t believe they wound up running that fast.

The Beaumont Bulls are expected to play in a new league under a new team next fall.

“If they can get back on the field after all this commotion, it’ll all be worth it,” Barber said. “It’ll be the icing on the cake.”

Larry Brooks of the Beaumont Bulls senior youth football team poses near his home in Beaumont, Texas, Nov. 1, 2016. (Walter Iooss for ESPN)

Walter Iooss for ESPN

Larry and Jaelun can’t wait.

“No more mess,” Larry said, referring to the arguments that finished their season prematurely.

He looks over at Jaelun, his friend, thinking about the idea of next season. He looks relieved.

“No more mess,” he said. “Just football.”

Does that mean the protests are over? Like many aspects of this story, it’s unclear.

Timothy Bella is a features journalist based in Washington, D.C., whose work has appeared in Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic and The New York Times.