It sounds too strange to be true: A high school athlete kicked off his team and handed a suspension from school for completing an academic assignment. Incredibly that's what happened in Ohio, and the justification has everything to do with the content of what the player turned in.
As reported by Cleveland Fox affiliate WJW, Rittman High (Rittman, Ohio) junior Nick Andre was a member of the Rittman varsity football team until Friday, when he performed a controversial poem in his junior composition class. The class had been given an assignment to write a poem about something they were passionate about. Andre delivered a scathing assessment of one of his teammates, and the internal team culture that promoted that teammate into a starring role.
The poem was entitled "Stupid," and Andre later told WJW that it was meant to reflect the frustrations of Rittman's 1-7 season. It may have done that, but it focused squarely on the shortcomings of Rittman wide receiver Blake Dennis.
Andre never explicitly names Dennis in his work, but he described a quarterback and receiver who are "best friends" and refers to "the inability to separate being a father and a coach," which is a direct attack on Dennis' father, Rittman head coach Bill Dennis.
Here's Andre's poem in full:
Non stop passes from best friend to best friend.
Continuously doing what doesn't work,
The inability to separate being a father and a coach.
But yet still the "super star",
Where's my scholarship?
I can drop passes,
And be afraid to take a hit.
That's top line div. 1 material right there.
If that's what they wanted,
They definitely got it.
This whole town will be glad when he is gone.
For anyone who doesn't understand what I am saying?
That final line -- the only one that could be considered profane -- is the ultimate proof that Andre was referring to the younger Dennis in the poem's early stages; Blake Dennis has committed to play college football at Akron.
While there is little question that Andre's poem included open dissent, there's a legitimate question over whether it warranted the penalty that it incurred. According to WJW, the junior was suspended from school for four days and banned from the football team for what Rittman's principal called "hazing" and "harassment".
Here is what Rittman principal Brett Lanz told WJW in a statement:
"[The student] wrote a mean and disrespectful poem about another student and our athletic director/head coach. [It was] hazing, harrassment."
Does a mean-spirited poem read out once in a public classroom really constitute hazing? Neither Andre or his mother think it does, and one prominent Cleveland civil rights lawyer agrees with them.
"The breadth of expression, even in public schools, is virtually limitless," Cleveland-based lawyer Avery Friedman told WJW. "Unless speech is creating material disruption to the educational process, which certainly isn’t here."