SAN FRANCISCO — A California school district on Monday reversed a basketball tournament ban on T-shirts reading "I Can't Breathe" and said it would allow high school players to wear the shirts during warm-ups as long as they do not cause problems, lawyers said.
With backing from school officials, the athletic director at Fort Bragg High School, previously told the boys and girls teams from Mendocino High School they could not play in the three-day event if they wore the shirts inspired by the last words of a New York man who died after an officer put him in a chokehold.
Karen Boyd, a First Amendment lawyer who represents one of the players, said the reversal by the Fort Bragg School District came just moments before she intended to file a federal court motion arguing that barring the shirts violated the free speech rights of student athletes.
The agreement will stand as long as the shirts do not cause any serious problems at the tournament. It also allows spectators to wear the shirts, which several did as the tournament got underway Monday at Fort Bragg High School, Boyd said.
"This is always my preference, if we can get things worked out without a lot of court stuff," she said.
School district lawyer Patrick Wilson said Fort Bragg officials wanted to avoid the cost of a legal battle but remained concerned the shirts could cause a disruption in the community that's still mourning the death of a sheriff's deputy killed in the line of duty in March.
"The concern is, you are in a packed auditorium, this is a polarizing issue and it's about something that happened in New York," Wilson said. "I think it's fine for people to protest about it, but emotions are still raw in that area."
The Mendocino boys team played its first game in the tournament on Monday morning after all but one of the players agreed to forego the shirts. It still has two more games scheduled. Too few members of the girls team accepted the condition and another high school was invited to take their place, Boyd said.
Some of the female players and about 100 supporters rallied outside the tournament, said Jone Lemos, whose daughter, Jin Jackson, is a team co-captain.
"I'm so proud of them for becoming involved in these issues," Lemos said. "On the other hand, I'm sad for them they weren't able to play basketball because it's one of the things they love to do and taking that away from them hurt."
Professional basketball players such as LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving have worn "I Can't Breathe" shirts during warmups without repercussions from the NBA.
The two Mendocino varsity teams first wore the shirts before a Dec. 16 game against Fort Bragg. Last week, Bruce Triplett, the athletic director at Fort Bragg High said the Mendocino teams would not be welcome at the tournament, but then reinstated the boys when they agreed not to wear the shirts.
Information from: The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, http://www.pressdemocrat.com