HS football coaches fired after being accused of forcing player to eat pork against religious beliefs

·5 min read

CANTON, Ohio — What Canton City school officials called a “misguided attempt to instill discipline” has led to the firing of McKinley High School head football coach Marcus Wattley and six of his assistant coaches.

The Canton City school board on Thursday voted unanimously to not renew the coaching contracts of Wattley, assistant coaches Cade Brodie and Tyler Thatcher, and assistant baseball coach Romero Harris, who has related weight room duties. With the same vote, the board also deemed assistant football coaches Frank McLeod, Zachary Sweat and Josh Grimsley as ineligible for future coaching positions.

Canton City Schools Superintendent Jeff Talbert reiterated the statements he gave Wednesday when he announced the coaches would face further discipline. He said the district’s nearly weeklong investigation found that the coaches on May 24 engaged in actions that were deemed "inappropriate, demeaning and divisive" during a non-mandatory strengthening and conditioning workout in the high school’s auxiliary gym.

Talbert said assistant coach Badre El Bardawil, who also had been suspended on May 26 with the other coaches, remains an assistant coach because the evidence “did not show that he performed in the same manner as the other coaches.”

Talbert said surveillance video gave administrators the information they needed to warrant their recommendations to the board. He again declined to provide details of what happened that day and said the video would not be publicly released due to federal student privacy regulations.

A football player's family has accused Wattley and his assistant coaches of forcing the player to consume an entire pepperoni pizza against his Hebrew Israelite religious beliefs as punishment for missing a voluntary May 20 strengthening and conditioning workout. The Canton Repository has agreed to not name the 17-year-old player, who has received interest from Division I colleges.

McKinley head coach Marcus Wattley runs onto the field with his team prior to the Bulldogs' 2019 Week 9 win at Perry.
McKinley head coach Marcus Wattley runs onto the field with his team prior to the Bulldogs' 2019 Week 9 win at Perry.

But attorney Peter Pattakos, who was retained by Wattley on Thursday, said Thursday that version of events is exaggerated and parts of it are false. His statements were supported by five McKinley football players who attended the school board meeting in support of their eight coaches.

According to Pattakos and the students, the player had the ability to leave at any time and Wattley had offered the player chicken nuggets instead of the pizza after the player said he didn’t eat pork. They said the player chose to take off the pepperoni and eat it.

The students said the player has since apologized to them and to the coaches.

Pattakos blamed an assistant coach, whom he did not name, for inflaming the situation by reporting an exaggerated version to administrators and the player’s family. Pattakos said he believes the assistant coach wanted Wattley’s job.

He blamed the district for conducting a “rushed and incomplete” investigation, noting that Wattley was interviewed for only 18 minutes and that only three of the 40 players present were interviewed.

“This community deserves a full and thorough investigation and it’s obvious that this hasn’t happened,” said Pattakos, as he pointed to the players.

Calling Wattley a "rising star," Pattakos said Wattley is heartbroken to be away from his team but he believes he did nothing wrong.

“There was no intent (to cause harm),” Pattakos said. “He was doing his best to teach an extraordinary athlete an important lesson.”

After the board’s vote, Pattakos yelled to the superintendent and the board, “This was a bad decision. It was rushed. You did not serve the community.”

Attorney Peter Pattakos talks with the media while the Canton City Board of Education meets in executive session regarding the McKinley High football team.
Attorney Peter Pattakos talks with the media while the Canton City Board of Education meets in executive session regarding the McKinley High football team.

Following the vote, Talbert rejected Pattakos’ statement that the district’s investigation was rushed, noting the video gave them enough information to determine that the coaches acted inappropriately.

Talbert said counselors will be available for the football players Friday.

Attorney Ed Gilbert, who is representing the 17-year-old football player and his family, said Thursday that he agrees with the school board's decision to dismiss the coaches, but added, “There is no joy in seeing this. ... We have a number of careers that have been destroyed here. Nobody wins in this.”

Gilbert, who did not attend the school board meeting, said the player has been devastated by the situation and continues to undergo psychological counseling. He disputed Pattakos' statement that Wattley had offered the player chicken nuggets or any alternative food.

Thursday’s board action only affects the coaching contracts. Further action may be taken on the employment contracts of the four ousted coaches — Wattley, Grimsley, McLeod and Sweat — who hold other positions within the district, Talbert said.

The district has sent its investigation to the Ohio Department of Education's professional conduct division and the Canton City Police Department for review.

Attorney Pattakos released the following statement on behalf of Marcus Wattley late Thursday night:

We asked the district to postpone their decision for at least one more week to allow for this matter to be fully and fairly investigated, including upon full consideration of the testimony of the numerous Canton McKinley football players who witnessed this event and were at tonight's board meeting wanting to tell anyone who would listen that the story being advanced by the alleged victim's father and attorney is not true. For inexplicable reasons, the board denied this basic request and refused to listen to these young men, reflecting that the district's leadership is not interested in the truth of this matter, and is instead motivated by something else.

The most important thing for Mr. Wattley at this point is that the truth comes out so that his name is cleared of these ridiculous charges against him, and we will make sure that happens. In the meantime, district leadership, including Superintendent Jeff Talbert and every board member who approved this decision, should be ashamed, not least for making such a momentous decision based on such an obviously faulty and rushed investigation. Wattley and his staff deserved better than this, and more importantly, so did the young men in that locker room and the whole Canton McKinley community.

What we are most certain of is that this community’s unfortunate loss will be another community’s gain, and that Mr. Wattley’s excellent record as a coach, educator, and community servant will continue to speak for itself to anyone interested in the truth.

Repository sports writer Josh Weir contributed to this article.

Follow Kelli Weir on Twitter: @kweirREP

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Football coaches fired after allegedly forcing player to eat pork