By Brendan Lowe
This year, our back-to-school communications plan survived for four days.
Indeed, our talk of increased transportation access and new supports to allow schools to focus more on instruction didn’t even make it through a week. Before many students could remember their daily schedules, the school district started fielding an unprecedented number of press requests from national media outlets on an unforeseen issue: standing for the national anthem.
It started on Saturday, Sept. 10, when one of our coaches, Preston Brown of Woodrow Wilson High School, took a knee—à la NFL player Colin Kaepernick—as the national anthem began playing before the team’s first game of the year. All but two of his players followed suit.
By evening, the Philadelphia Inquirer had posted a story. Then the local NBC affiliate called me for a statement—not my usual Saturday night phone call—and I interrupted the Superintendent’s plans to talk it over. We landed on a simple statement that backed our students:
“The District supports standing for the flag, but this is a personal issue, and we strongly respect our students’ experiences and their exercising our country’s First Amendment rights. Whether our students choose to stand, kneel, or otherwise, we’re proud of their engagement with what is more broadly a very important social justice issue.”
Drafting the statement had been fairly simple—as usual, we started from a place of supporting our students and went from there, so our stance here fell in line with our typical perspective—yet the statement itself made news.
By the time Sunday came, it was clear we were not handling a typical story. The fact that it was Sunday, Sept. 11 only added fuel to the fire. Additional inquiries came in, and we referred back to our statement. By the afternoon, we received a request to get past the District’s statement to hear directly from the coach who inspired the kneeling. As the request came from a local radio show host who had previously taught in our schools—and as we naively figured we’d do this initial interview and then the story would die down—we consented, with one caveat.
The only way you can interview the coach, we told the radio show host, was if you interview a student-athlete, too—student voices need to be a part of this story.
The radio interview Monday went off without incident, but at that point the focus had turned to a column by a longtime Inquirer high school sports writer. Surprisingly, he came down hard on the coach. Even more surprisingly, and perhaps condescendingly, he referred to the players—many of whom are old enough to vote and to serve in the military—as “children.” Even after conscientiously beginning his column by acknowledging, “I haven’t walked a mile in Preston Brown’s shoes,” the columnist found the chutzpah to continue digging his hole.
At that point, we had no illusions about the shelf life of the story. Our challenge was to figure out how to best tell it. Our local beat reporter for the Inquirer, who has experience in the city and who could capture the nuance and sensitivity of a story like this one, was out of the country on vacation. We were besieged by multiple calls a day, from local outlets through CNN. When we received the rare requests with depth—for an interview on WNYC’s All Things Considered, for example—we granted them. But most members of the media were interested in a 30-second sound bite that could feed the frenzy. We pointed them to our previous statement, reminded them that the coaches and players were at work and in school, and invited them to the next game.
Then we heard from a reporter at the BBC. She was interested in coming to Camden from Washington, D.C. and telling this story in full. She’d bring in someone to do audio for a radio piece and someone to put together a brief video. She wanted to spend substantial time with the coach and the players before the game.
We appreciated the depth of her interest and her belief that the story would best be told by spending extended time with the players and coaches. We also were looking to strike a balance in terms of access—while we did not want to appear to be favoring an international news outlet over our locals, we believed this was an important story, that our students and our coaches had something to say and deserved a chance to say it.
So the BBC reporter spent more than a dozen hours with the team, resulting in a 3,600-word story that fully captured the situation. Combined with an Inquirer op-ed from the coach that was promptly shared on Facebook more than 3,000 times, the players and coaches’ perspective had become the dominant narrative on this important national story (complete with a Time magazine cover story) less than two weeks after the story broke.
As one of the student-athletes said to the BBC about the critics on the issue, “They don’t have to worry about coming to school being in the middle of a drug transaction and stuff like that. So the most that they think of it is, ‘Oh they’re being disrespectful, disrespectful black kids once again,'” said Travon King, a junior at Woodrow Wilson High. “They don’t see what we go through every day.”
Brendan Lowe is the Chief Communications Officer for the Camden City School District.