Mendocino High School Basketball Players Who Might Wear "I Can't Breathe" Shirts Were Disinvited From a Tournament

One of this year's most powerful quotes has stirred controversy on the Northern California coast, after a high school banned "I can't breathe" T-shirts at a three-day inter-school basketball tournament it is due to host, starting Monday. The ban resulted in the host school, Fort Bragg High, disinviting Mendocino High School from the tournament, after concerns arose about Mendocino basketball teams wearing shirts during warmup sessions bearing the words that, in the past few tumultuous months, have become a rallying cry for protestors against police brutality and a bias justice system.

The Associated Press reported that Mendocino Unified School District Superintendent Jason Morse said Fort Bragg's athletic director told his Mendocino counterpart last week that neither the boys nor girls team would be allowed to join the Vern Piver Holiday Classic tournament. But while the boys team was later reinstated after all but one player agreed not to wear any such shirts on the Fort Bragg campus during the tournament, not enough members on the girls team agreed to the condition for their team to field a tournament squad.

A number of professional athletes have donned shirts during their warmup sessions with the words "I can't breathe" — from Lebron James and Kyle Irving in the NBA to Reggie Bush and Johnson Bademosi in the NFL — without blowback.

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The school's athletic director didn't respond to calls or emails from The Guardian, but its principal, Rebecca Walker, said in a written statement issued on Friday that Fort Bragg High's administrators respected the Mendocino teams for their social awareness, and that the shirts were banned on security grounds. Walker elaborated:

To protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament. We are a small school district that simply does not have the resources to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, students and guests at the tournament should someone get upset and choose to act out.

The incident has angered the local Mendocino community, who are divided between giving due respect to the police officers and exercising the right to freedom of speech. Marc Woods, the father of 16-year-old Connor who plans to sit out the tournament in protest, said it was a matter of constitutional rights. Woods, who said he has taken up the issue with the American Civil Liberties Union, told AP:

This is completely a First Amendment issue. That's why I'm offended.

Woods said that he views the ban as an act of intimidation to silence both players and fans, and that he is outraged. Administrators at Fort Bragg High have warned that those who plan to protest the T-shirt ban will be asked to leave, Woods told the news wire.

On the other hand, the Mendocino County Deputy Sheriffs Association, whose Deputy Sheriff, Ricky del Fiorentino, died in the line of duty earlier this year, saw the shirts as a sign of disrespect for its slain officer. The association took to Facebook to air its grievances, assuring the community that the police are there to help them.

On Saturday, several members from the Mendocino teams wrote an open letter in response to the community's split on the issue, stressing that their protest had nothing to do with "exemplary officers" like Deputy Del Fiorentino, and defending their right to promote awareness of social issues.

Mendocino varsity teams first wore the shirts prior to a game with Fort Bragg High on Dec. 16, said Caydyn Feehan, the coach of the girls team, and then before two other tournaments — all without any repercussions, according to AP. Feehan said, about the quote:

I didn't even know what it meant. I thought it was a joke about how I had conditioned them so hard. None of the administrators knew what it was or that any of them were doing it in advance. This was entirely for their cause that they had strong feelings about.

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