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Honoring the Anthem or Free Speech?

July 20, 2009

United States Code specifies how people should act when the Star-Spangled Banner is played: "All present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart; men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold the headdress at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart...."

The uniform in question is military, not athletic. A lawsuit filed Friday against Macalester College charges that Jacob Bond was kicked off the football team there in 2006 for refusing to remove his helmet while the national anthem was being played -- an act he says was an act of protest over the Bush administration's war in Iraq. Bond graduated from Macalester in May, but the suit says that he did not have the experience he believed he would because of being kicked off the team, and because the college failed to adequately accommodate his disabilities with Asperger's Syndrome and attention-deficit disorder.

The part of his suit that is unusual, however, is not about disabilities, but the national anthem. According to the suit, the incident took place during a practice, when the national anthem was played on an adjacent field as part of a competition unrelated to the football team. Patrick Babcock, an assistant coach, told the players to remove their helmets, the suit says. Bond said that he kept his helmet on and turned away, as an act of protest, leading Babcock to scream at him: "Why do you always have to be different?" The next day, Bond was off the team.

According to Bond, he was removed by the head coach, Glenn Caruso, who has since moved on to a similar position at the University of St. Thomas. Macalester responds that Bond left the team voluntarily, that he had multiple conflicts with the the coach, and that no one has ever been punished at the college related to head coverings during the national anthem. However, Macalester officials also acknowledge that there was an "incident" involving Bond's refusal to to take off his helmet, and that it immediately preceded his departure from the team.

The suit charges that punishing him for keeping his helmet on violated the college handbook's pledges to support free speech, and constituted breach of contract with Bond. The suit says that Bond's mother, who had traveled to campus thinking she would watch her son play, spoke with both an administrator and the head coach and says both reported on an incident involving the national anthem.

In an interview Saturday, Bond said that he finished his degree in mathematics and is currently getting ready to apply to Ph.D. programs in the field.

The incident took place at the beginning of his sophomore year. During his freshman year, he said that he generally had his helmet already off when the national anthem was played before games, and that he didn't feel the need to put his helmet on as part of his protest. But he said that several times when the anthem was played previously and he had his helmet on, he left it on, without incident.

With the war in Iraq, he said, "I don't think that with the actions of the government that our national anthem is important enough to interrupt a football practice."

Trudy Bond, his mother, said that she was shocked by the way Macalester treated her son, comparing it to the actions of the Bush administration. "I'm very proud of my son for being willing to make a statement," she said.

Laurie Hamre, vice president for student affairs, said that the college was "disappointed" that a suit had been filed. She said that an internal investigation and one by the Education Department had found no violations. (Bond's lawyer said that the focus of the Education Department inquiry was Bond's academic experience, not the issue of political free speech.)

Hamre said that she could not speak to the specifics of the suit. But she acknowledged that she spoke with Trudy Bond the day after the disagreement "and indicated that I knew there had been an incident."

During athletic events, when the anthem is played at the college, she said that Macalester was the same as other colleges. "I think the norm would be respect, but there would never be any kind of penalty because of free speech," she said.

Asked if Bond was reprimanded for refusing to take off his helmet, she declined to get that specific but said, "Macalester has never denied participation to any student, in any co-curricular activity, because of free speech."

 

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