With Privilege Comes Responsibility – three soccer players take a knee, protesting institutionalized racism


Lexie Crawford

Junior Faith Broering and senior Maggie Stieby take a knee during the National Anthem.

     Blue soccer uniforms lined up in a row. One, two, three… twenty-one Highlands varsity girls soccer players standing with their open palms placed upon their chests. Their heads are turned towards the American flag as it waves above the entrance to the Tower Park field. 

     Only three players differ, their knees digging into the turf. They keep their gazes steady as the National Anthem’s tune rings through the stadium. Even the deafening volume can’t distract from the combination of disapproving and proud glances shot their way from the bleachers. 

     Nevertheless, junior Faith Broering and seniors Maggie Stieby and Jasmine Rehberger hold their kneeling stance until the final note has fully dissipated into the autumn evening.

     Kneeling during the National Anthem was first introduced as a form of protest by National Football League (NFL) player Colin Kaepernick in 2016. His demonstration was a statement on the treatment of Black Americans in the United States, and a call for change. After being met with outrage, Kaepernick vehemently defended his actions and has since been hailed as a modern civil rights activist.

     For Broering, her decision to kneel came following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of law enforcement. 

     Broering reflected, “Because of my race, I am fortunate to be able to learn about the racism and prejudice Black men and women have endured instead of experiencing it myself.” She continued, “I’m trying to do exactly what the media did — draw attention to it in order to create change.”

     Stieby’s opinions aligned with Broering, and she quickly followed suit. 

     Elaborating on the pair’s decision, Stieby said, “Recognizing the privilege we have, we collectively decided to kneel during the National Anthem to show our solidarity with the men and women of color in this country who are not treated fairly within our justice system.”

     Principal Matthew Bertasso was first made aware of their decision to kneel by the students themselves. According to Bertasso, they sent an email to both him and Highlands Athletic Director (AD) Wes Caldwell explaining their position. 

     Bertasso described the email, saying, “It was well thought out, well written. It wasn’t them asking for permission. It was them stating, ‘this is what we will be doing’, and they did a very good job of explaining that professionally and with the right pieces.” 

     Caldwell stated that his initial reaction to hearing their plan was one of pride. He said, “Being African American in this country, there are certain things that are different for me, that are not the same for other people. For me, I thought it was very commendable and it was probably one of the bravest things I’ve seen.” 

     Following the first few games of the season in which Broering and Stieby protested, their quiet action inspired another teammate to join them. According to Rehberger, she was nervous at first. However, support from the community has helped solidify her decision.

     Rehberger commented, “I knew that doing this would turn some heads, and I could face some controversy, so it was a little frightening. However, the people who have shared their support [have] really inspired me and remind me that what I am doing is right for me.”

     That controversy has certainly permeated the Fort Thomas community, and as a result, parents on the team and other community members have raised concerns to the Highlands administration. 

     Bertasso noted, “Both Mr. Caldwell and I have had to share court cases and precedents and legalese to explain why the students are allowed to do that and why we, as administrators, do not interfere with that freedom of speech.” 

     While there are a plethora of Supreme Court cases supporting the right to peaceful free speech in schools, two major cases limiting the school administration’s powers include Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School (1969) and V.A. v. San Pasqual Valley Unified School District (2018). 

     In Tinker v. Des Moines, one of the landmark free speech decisions for public school students, the Supreme Court determined that “students don’t shed their Constitutional rights at the school house gates.” In other words, peaceable free speech by public school students is protected under the First Amendment.

     V.A. v. San Pasqual is a much more recent case, and one that delves into the rights of public school students to kneel during the national anthem. In this case, the Supreme Court determined that the public school district could not force students to stand for the national anthem, ruling it an infringement upon the First Amendment right of free speech.

     Caldwell gave further context for the community backlash, stating, “We’ve had some concerns from people wanting to know why they’re doing this… everybody is entitled to their opinion, the great thing about America is that we all have opinions and we all can voice those.”

     Broering acknowledged the criticism directly, but her perspective on it is optimistic in spite of the attacks she’s faced along the way. She said, “A lot of people are talking harshly about it, taking videos of us and spreading them on social media, but I think that’s the key takeaway — people are talking about it. I am privileged, white, and middle-class, and I’m sure most Highlands students can say the same.” She continued, “To have so many people of that demographic thinking about and discussing it is incredibly important to me, even if it comes at the expense of attacks on my character.”

     Despite negative feedback from some, the girls have continued their protests at every game. Broering, Stieby, and Rehberger all agreed that their teammates have been largely respectful of their demonstrations, even when their opinions may differ. 

     Stieby elaborated, “Initially, I definitely feared the possibility of stratification within the team due to conflicting opinions, however the players and coaching staff have demonstrated exceptional maturity and have not let our personal opinions interfere with our performance on the field.”

     One such teammate that disagrees with their position is senior Jenna Hartung. Hartung believes that their stance is unnecessarily divisive. She proposed an alternative way to protest, reflecting, “I believe a more acceptable way would be to share their beliefs with their teammates and the reasoning behind it… I don’t really care if people stand or kneel, it doesn’t affect me and I don’t feel like I have the right to tell [people] what they should and shouldn’t be doing[.] I believe that kneeling for the anthem does not necessarily solve the issue and actually divides us even more than we already are.”

     Another argument offered against their action is the assertion that kneeling during the National Anthem is disrespectful to American veterans. All three young women believe differently.

     Rehberger specifically felt moved to give her perspective, stating, “I have had people come to me and share their support. Most importantly, a close family friend who served as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam. He fought for the country, and is proud of me for making a statement about something I believe in… I love our country, but that doesn’t mean it can’t grow and change for the better.”

     Broering feels largely the same way, citing multiple veteran family members as a continual source of her motivation. She said, “They did not fight for a piece of cloth, they fought for people. They fought for freedom and justice for all, justice that must be extended to all Americans regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or identity. Veterans gave up their lives for the rights I’m exercising today, which I believe is one of the greatest ways I can honor them.”

     Through controversy and strife, these three young women have demonstrated their beliefs in a way unlike anything Fort Thomas has seen before. While many in the community may not understand their perspectives, they hope that their actions are sparking dialogue in a town which often lacks opportunities to confront systemic racism. 

     Stieby’s participation in the protest has been an eye-opening experience for her. She remarked, “The criticism I received really put things into perspective. If I am scared to peacefully protest as someone who is not consistently discriminated against because of my race, how do we expect the minorities in our country to have a voice? With privilege comes responsibility, and I will never apologize for questioning a system that doesn’t provide every citizen with equal treatment and rights.”

     Broering agrees, giving a message to those in the community who disapprove of her actions. She stated firmly, “I urge them to set aside our differences for just a moment and listen to what I believe kneeling stands for versus what they believe it stands for. I urge them to imagine the pain Black Americans have felt for so long. I urge them to imagine the fear they will never feel when getting pulled over. I urge them to imagine what it is like to be a Black person in America.” 

     She continued, “Protesting during the anthem doesn’t mean I don’t love America — I do. I love it enough to want to make it a better, safer place for all of us.”