High school football coaches suspended after teenager was forced to eat pork, lawyer says

Canton, Ohio, high school football coach and seven assistant coaches suspended after punishing 17-year-old for failing to voluntary practice by forcing him to eat pork against his religious beliefs, lawyer representing the boy’s family.

The Canton City School District took action against the McKinley High School coaches after conducting an initial investigation, according to a statement released Wednesday by Jeff Talbert, the district superintendent. He also filed a report on the matter with the Canton Police Department, which is investigating a possible hazing episode.

On the last day of classes, May 24, four days after missing an optional workout, the 17-year-old, a rising senior, was forced to eat a whole pepperoni pizza, even though the head coach , Marcus Wattley, and the other coaches knew he didn’t eat pork because he was a Hebrew Israelite, according to his family’s lawyer, Ed Gilbert. He said the boy’s family intended to sue the school district.

School district officials were not available for comment on Wednesday, but in a statement issued in the afternoon, Mr. Talbert said: “The investigation revealed that the identified coaches engaged in actions that constituted inappropriate, demeaning and divisive behavior in a misguided attempt to instill discipline in student-athletes.

The statement, which did not provide details of the episode or the names of the coaches, also did not specify the length of the suspensions. Mr. Talbert added that further disciplinary action would follow.

“Let’s be clear, the Canton City School District holds our coaches and general staff to the highest professional and ethical standards,” said Mr. Talbert. “Anything that does not meet these standards is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. “

Efforts to reach Mr. Wattley by telephone on Wednesday evening were unsuccessful.

According to Gilbert, the 17-year-old, who he said had previously received offers for college football scholarships, is in therapy because of the episode, which was reported last week by The Canton Repository, a local newspaper.

“He is convinced – and this is what hurts him the most – that the coach was aware of his beliefs and wanted to punish him, and we believe it was done intentionally and that it was a punitive act,” said Gilbert. mentionned.

According to Gilbert, the 17-year-old was told his teammates would be forced to do extra exercises if he didn’t eat the pizza, and that his own position with the team could be compromised.

“The coach told him, to have respect and stay on this team, you have to eat the pizza,” he said.

The coaches were aware of the student’s religious beliefs because they had all participated in team meals together where the student made sure to order meals that did not include pork, Gilbert said.

“I don’t know what this coach was thinking – I mean, in today’s society you respect people’s religious beliefs,” Gilbert said. “You don’t make fun of them or make a problem out of them, and I just don’t know where this coach’s head is.”

Although coaches allowed the player to remove the pepperoni after reiterating his beliefs, Gilbert said, pork residue remained on the pizza. He ate it anyway. After he was finished, the coaches asked him to do weighted exercises on the soccer field.

When a coach who was not present learned of what had happened, he immediately reported it to the school, according to Gilbert.

A special meeting of the school district‘s education council is scheduled for Thursday to further discuss the matter.

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