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Former Canton McKinley Football Coaches Sue For Defamation

"The biggest failure here is that of the school district officials whose job it was to get to the bottom of this, whose job it was to investigate the truth of this matter. But instead of doing that, they took this as an opportunity to vindicate their own personal preferences," plaintiff's attorney Peter Pattakos said. [Canton City School District]
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Canton McKinley High School Head Football Coach Marcus Wattley and five assistant coaches are suing Canton City school officials and others for spreading “false, malicious and extremely defamatory statements” that cost them their jobs and their reputations.

The lawsuit is seeking compensation for the damage done to the coaches' reputations, lost wages and diminished earning capacity, and for their mental distress, pain and anguish.

Wattley and six assistant coaches were fired June 3 after trying to  force a player to eat pork against his religious beliefs during a May 24 practice, after missing an earlier, non-mandatory weight training session.

Wattley and former assistant coaches Cade Brodie, Romero Harris, Frank McLeod, Zachary Sweat and Tyler Thatcher are represented by Peter Pattakos, who said the incident has been completely mischaracterized and called the situation “outrageous.”

The sixth former assistant coach who lost his job, Josh Grimsley, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

According to Pattakos, Wattley and his coaching staff had been trying to help the player, who despite pending NCAA Division I college football scholarship offers was “consistently falling short of the program’s basic standards of conduct.”

The complaint, filed in Stark County Common Pleas Court on July 12, says that misconduct extended to disrespecting his teammates, being insubordinate with coaches and “correlated with the player’s increasing marijuana use that was not only well known to his teammates but only weeks earlier had been reported to the coaches by [the player’s] father.”

Pattakos said the coaches tried talking to him, but weren’t getting through.

On May 24, Pattakos said the coaches believed the student showed up to practice “really high,” and realized “they needed to do something to get through to this kid or he wasn’t going to be on the team.” So Wattley decided to give the player the “royal treatment.”

It’s a punishment in which the player sits in the center of the room eating while the rest of his teammates work out hard around him. The “royal treatment” was something Wattley had seen used at the University of Akron, Pattakos said.

In this case, the player was told to eat a pepperoni pizza while the rest of the team worked out and watched him. Pattaoks contends that when the player said he doesn’t eat pork, the coaches offered him chicken nuggets. The lawyer said it was ultimately the player’s choice to peel the pepperoni off the pizza and eat it.

“The fact that this has been turned around on these coaches into an accusation that they forced a student to eat pork against his religion, it's just been just shocking, devastating and outrageous,” Pattakos told Ideastream Public Media Thursday.

Shortly after the incident, the unnamed high school player’s father, Kenny Walker, and attorney Edward Gilbert announced the family’s intent to sue the Canton City School District for violating the student’s First Amendment religious rights. As a Hebrew Israelite, eating pork or even the pork residue left on the pizza by the pepperoni, is against his religion.

At the time, Gilbert told Ideastream that “everyone knows this kid does not eat pork due to his religious beliefs.”

On Thursday, the Canton City School District declined Ideastream’s request for an interview about the defamation lawsuit, instead pointing to a June statement released after the school board’s decision to terminate the coaches in which the school district characterized the incident as a “demeaning, divisive and misguided approach to instill discipline in our players.”

In the defamation lawsuit, Canton Schools Superintendent Jeff Talbert is named as a defendant, along with Canton City school board members John Rinaldi, Scott Russ, Kim Brown, David Kaminski and Eric Resnickas.

Also named in the suit are Walker and Gilbert, the student’s father and attorney, and Grimsley, the former coach who Pattakos and the other coaches say brought this firestorm down on them and the team.

Pattakos said Grimsley mischaracterized the incident when he reported it to the school district because he was disgruntled after being passed over for the head coach position in 2019.

“The real failure here, the biggest failure here is that of the school district officials whose job it was to get to the bottom of this, whose job it was to investigate the truth of this matter,” Pattakos said. “But instead of doing that, they took this as an opportunity to vindicate their own personal preferences.”

Pattakos said Canton school officials saw the situation as an opportunity to replace Wattley with now interim head coach Antonio Hall, so they “exploited the situation and ignored the evidence.”

“They interviewed three players in this investigation, only three. And we’ve spoken with two of those players who have said that the coaches didn’t do anything wrong, that the player wasn’t forced to eat anything, that he was offered chicken as an alternative, that he was free to leave at any time,” Pattakos said. “The district ignored the testimony of these eyewitnesses and just proceeded to terminate these coaches.”

Jenny Hamel is the host of the “Sound of Ideas.”