Lebanon student-athletes use platform to support racial justice

  • Lebanon soccer players Alyssa Graber, left, Klaleh Punni, Sally Rainey and Ella Longacre work out before warmups for their game with Hanover on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, in Lebanon, N.H. Seniors on the girls and boys soccer teams at Lebanon organized the purchase of Black Lives Matter T-shirts as a fundraiser, with over $350 raised and donated to the Equal Justice Initiative. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Lebanon junior Nyeoti Punni Jr. (5) and senior team captain Jake Hibner (32) kneel with other teammates during the national anthem before the start of their game against Keene on Saturday in Lebanon to protest racial injustice. Along with other student-athletes at the school, Punni and Hibner have pushed forward a conversation and anti-racist movement within the Raiders’ community. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lebanon goakeeper Sally Rainey wears her Black Lives Matter t-shirt before game warmups on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020, in Lebanon, N.H. Rainey is one of the members of the team who organized the ordering and selling of BLM t-shirts to fellow student-athletes as a fundraiser for the Equal Justice Initiative. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/17/2020 9:26:25 PM
Modified: 10/17/2020 9:26:19 PM

As Sally Rainey watched news reports about the murder of George Floyd in late May and the ensuing surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, she knew she had to act.

She watched as the National Women’s Soccer League returned to play in June and players donned Black Lives Matter T-shirts and kneeled during the national anthem.

That’s when she understood she was capable of taking on the issues herself.

A senior at Lebanon High School and a star goalkeeper for the Raiders’ girls soccer team, she and her senior teammates, along with senior players on the boys soccer team, had Black Lives Matter T-shirts made up. Soon the shirts were sold to other student-athletes at Lebanon and are now worn before warmups start.

“Sports are a great platform to use that voice because everyone loves sports,” said Rainey, who has committed to playing at the University of New Hampshire next fall. “And it is a platform. People do come and watch. It’s a way we can get our voices out there, using what we were given.

“To me, Black Lives Matter means Black lives in this country have not been treated equally in America and they deserve to be treated equally.”

More than $350 was raised from the sale of the T-shirts, and the proceeds were donated to the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes.

The conversation and movement within the Raiders’ community has continued growing. On Oct. 10, Sophie Longacre, a freshman on the girls soccer team, organized a gathering of about 30 students at Colburn Park, and the group held signs with messages opposing racism for a few hours.

“We wanted it be more than just performative activism,” said Klaleh Punni, a senior captain on the girls soccer team who would like to study pre-law in college. “We wanted people to make an independent choice, and in doing so you had to understand why we were doing it.”

“There have been a lot of experiences of micro-aggressions and racism that people just really don’t see because Lebanon is viewed as such a perfect town that nobody sees what goes on behind the scenes. So it’s hard being that minority, not only being Black but also being a woman.”

Some football players take a knee

Girls soccer players aren’t the only Lebanon athletes protesting racism this fall.

Several Lebanon High football players have shown solidarity with Klaleh Punni’s younger brother in their own protests — but the student-athletes have also learned firsthand the challenges of taking a stand, including some public backlash.

Two weeks ago, when the Raiders hosted Newport, five Lebanon football players kneeled along with their teammate, Nyeoti Punni Jr., during the national anthem. The junior running back is the lone person of color on the team, and senior team captain Jake Hibner said he and his teammates wanted to support him.

“The support was great because it is really tough being the only Black kid in my grade,” Nyeoti Punni Jr. said. “I am happy that there are people supporting me and my beliefs.”

Punni said he’s “definitely dealt with plenty of racism” over the years, from “people just being prejudiced” to another player calling him the N-word after a tackle.

“Sitting here at 16 years old I’ve learned to handle myself in those situations and how to act and react. ... I can definitely feel, even when I was younger, people were watching and looking at me differently,” he said.

The Lebanon players’ actions mirrored those of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who in September 2016 sat on the bench during the national anthem as a method of protest against police brutality, kneeling in subsequent games. Although some other NFL players followed suit, Kaepernick’s action spurred a national debate, and no team signed him after he became a free agent in 2017.

The protest by the Lebanon football players spurred a similar debate on the local stage.

A picture of the six Lebanon players kneeling for the anthem before their matchup with Newport surfaced on Facebook the night of the game, and by the next morning the post had drawn more than 180 comments, some of which took aim at the players and school.

“As far as I’m concerned, kneeling should be a hate crime or seen as the same as the salute for the KKK,” wrote Alan Greenhalgh, of Goshen, N.H., which sends students to Newport High. “Lebanon high school, you are a disgraceful embarrassment to the human race. Pray to God I never see you play.”

He went on to comment: “May your school burn down and your children get Covid.”

The comments were flagged and Lebanon High Principal Ian Smith and SAU 88 Superintendent Joanne Roberts filed a report with Lebanon police.

Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello reviewed the posts but said no criminal charges were pending from his department, as there were “no threats in the posts.”

“While some of the comments were distasteful, they did not rise to the level of criminal conduct occurring within our jurisdiction,” Mello said via email on Oct. 7.

Newport police chief Brent Wilmot earlier this month said the comments were being reviewed by Newport High’s school resource officer. Wilmot said the school administration at Newport was made aware of the situation as well.

“When we have visiting teams come visit the town of Newport in the future, we may be mindful of the fact and how that event stirred up such a reaction,” said Wilmot, who alluded to possibly having to send more officers to games in the future.

In a phone interview last week, Greenhalgh, who was not at the Lebanon-Newport game, said he served 13 years in the Army and is now disabled. He said he’s since apologized for wishing harm against the school but he meant no harm. He noted that others in the social media thread had made derogatory comments about the town of Newport, which had also upset him.

“Over the next day I did make a comment saying, ‘I am sorry, I didn’t mean it personally,’ ” Greenhalgh said. “It’s their right to do this, but it’s our right as adults to teach them right from wrong. You’re kneeling for the national anthem; that has absolutely nothing to do with race.”

The game against Newport wasn’t the first time players from Lebanon kneeled during the national anthem; two players did so in a Week 1 game at Stevens High School in Claremont.

Asked how school officials regarded the protests by the athletes, Roberts, the Lebanon superintendent, said, “Our students have a right to free speech, and the District respects all students’ rights to exercise that freedom in accordance with the law.”

School officials have not tried to stop the protests, but there are some limitations — the soccer players can wear their BLM T-shirts on the bus and on the field, but they have to remove them when official warmups start.

“It’s the kids’ right and we’re going to let them do it,” Raiders football coach Chris Childs said of the football team kneeling, declining further comment.

Lebanon athletic director Mike Stone also alluded to the players’ rights that the U.S. Constitution grants them with the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and protest.

“There was a lot of backlash,” Nyeoti Punni Jr. said, “but we didn’t let that get to us because there’s deeper meaning to what we’re doing. We hope it doesn’t offend anybody.”

The experience has only reminded him and Hibner of why they chose to take a knee in the first place. After the Newport game, the team gathered after practice for a discussion to make sure there was still unity within the squad.

A few players expressed disapproval for kneeling during the anthem while others supported their teammates. Still, the conversation was productive and resulted in some agreement about what would take place moving forward. Players will continue to kneel in support of Black lives while others might lock arms or place their hands on the shoulders of those taking a knee.

“I mean, backlash isn’t good, but the fact that it does bring awareness and people are starting to talk about it,” said Hibner, a running back and defensive back, “and the fact that we did come together as a team and had a player-only meeting where we talked about what we are trying to accomplish with it, there’s definitely something to be said about that.”

Continued conversations

These conversations about racism and also social issues aren’t new at Lebanon, nor are they finished.

Boys soccer coach Rob Johnstone said that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, each one of his players had red, white and blue ribbons sewed onto their jerseys by parents. When they went to play Laconia only a few days later, officials said they couldn’t wear them because they weren’t part of the uniforms.

To this day Johnstone wishes he had said Lebanon wasn’t going to play then.

Girls lacrosse coach Sara Ecker has had plenty of conversations with her players over the 20-plus years she’s been with the program about what it means to be an empowered young woman, and to stand up for oneself.

Ecker said the program is in its seventh year of raising money for the “Not in Our House” program, which provides opportunities to local children affected by domestic abuse. The program was inspired by the 2012 murder of Lebanon High teacher Natalie Perriello, who was shot to death by her husband.

“I think the thing I really try and encourage is just this idea of tolerance,” she said. “You can look at it Black or white, you can look at religion, you can look at sexuality, you can look at any difference. You can look at a leader or a follower, a senior or a freshman. There are these differences and if we cannot find a way to on a team cultivate that feeling of tolerance (then we’re lost).”

Amanda Valliere is a social studies teacher and field hockey coach at Lebanon. A few of her players have purchased Black Lives Matter T-shirts from Rainey; players have used field hockey as a way to communicate about organizing outside of school.

She’s seen the conversations on the athletic field trickle into the classroom, too. Some students have worn the shirts around the hallways and she’s currently teaching the causes of the American Revolution in her U.S. history class.

One of the causes is how the colonists felt they didn’t have a voice in the English government. The lesson shows a parallel with social injustice in the United States, she said, and has sparked classroom conversations about protests that have taken place in American history.

“The really cool thing — and I’m not sure that is the right word to use — is a lot of the attention that is being brought to social injustice is coming from the kids,” she said. “And the fact that these young adults are leading the way for the rest of the community is really amazing.”

For Rainey, Hibner, the Punni siblings and their classmates, they know these conversations are just a start.

“It’s good to know people aren’t doing it for show and that people really care,” said Nyeoti Punni Jr., who would like to play in college. “Personally, nobody from administration has come to me and said any type of support. Honestly, I don’t know if they support me or not but they haven’t stopped us from showing our beliefs, so I guess that’s good enough.”

Pete Nakos can be reached at pnakos@vnews.com.

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