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Canton McKinley Football Player Says Punishment Violated Religious Rights

a Google Maps image of Canton McKinley High School
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McKinley High School in Canton, Ohio.

A 17-year-old Canton McKinley High School football player says his coaches forced him to eat pepperoni pizza as punishment for missing a practice, despite knowing he doesn’t eat pork for religious reasons. The player, a starting tackle, says the incident has left him scarred.

Attorney Edward Gilbert along with the student’s father, Kenny Walker, announced on Tuesday the family’s intent to sue the Canton City School District for violating the student-athlete’s First Amendment religious rights.

Meanwhile, Canton McKinley’s head football coach, Marcus Wattley, and seven assistant coaches are suspended while the school district investigates.

According to Gilbert, the 17-year-old missed a voluntary weight training practice on May 20 because he wanted to rest an injured shoulder. But four days later, when he showed up to another weight training session, Gilbert said Wattley moved the student from the weight room to the gym, where a box of pepperoni pizza was waiting on the floor.

“Now, everyone knows this kid does not eat pork due to his religious beliefs. And whenever they have a team dinner or a team get-together, he would always inquire as to whether there was pork in the menu,” Gilbert said. “And it’s our view that the head coach, Mr. Wattley, knew about this or should have known about it… And to punish this kid, he ordered a pork pizza for him and he had the team gather around and he had seven coaches with him, he opened up the pizza box and told the kid to start eating the pizza as punishment.”

The student protested numerous times that he can’t eat pork or pork residue because of his Hebrew Israelite faith. According to Gilbert, the coach told the student to eat the entire pizza with the pepperoni pulled off. The student continued to protest he couldn’t eat pork residue.

“He [the head coach] said you have to eat it or the consequences is that the teammates would have to do further drills. And in addition to that, there's a question of whether you're going to stay on the team,” Gilbert said. “So as a result of that, the kid did eat the pizza and he wasn't required to eat the crust on the end.”

Despite standing 6’5” and 280 pounds, Gilbert called the student “a sensitive kid” who is traumatized by the May 24 incident and is attending therapy with his mom.

“He felt humiliated. The family is very upset, very disturbed,” Gilbert said. 

In a May 26 letter, the Canton City School District placed Wattley and the seven other members of the coaching staff on paid administrative leave and told them to stay away from school property, students, parents and staff while under suspension. 

In a press statement the district said it “holds all staff to the highest professional and ethical standards. Anything short of these standards is unacceptable.”

“The football program, which has a long and impressive history, is an important part of our school culture and our community,” the school district said in a statement. “That program has a proud tradition of instilling the attributes of excellence, leadership, community, accountability, hard work, and respect into the players and those associated with the overall program. As such, those entrusted with the protection of our student-athletes must be held to a higher standard within our community.”

Editors' note: ideastream agreed not to name the player.

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Jenny Hamel is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media and calls the eastside of Cleveland home. Prior to that, she was a reporter for KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Los Angeles, covering a range of issues from immigration to politics.