McKinley High School

McKinley Senior High School in Canton

Eight football coaches at McKinley Senior High School in Canton have been suspended after forcing a player who keeps kosher to eat a pepperoni pizza as a punishment for missing practice.

The player, who is a 17-year-old rising senior on the football team, is a Hebrew Israelite. This religion forbids the consumption of pork or any pork residue on foods.

Edward Gilbert of the Edward L. Gilbert Co. in Akron, the attorney representing the player and his family, said the player missed a voluntary workout on May 20 while nursing a shoulder injury. Following the day off and the weekend, head coach Marcus Wattley and seven assistant coaches told him to go to the gym and eat an entire box of pepperoni pizza in front of about 35 teammates, according to Gilbert.

“This has just messed him up,” Gilbert told the Cleveland Jewish News on June 2.

He said the player has gone to two counseling sessions since May 24.

“Psychologically, it has really affected him,” Gilbert said. “So we’re trying to get the best psychological assistance that we can. It’s been very embarrassing and very hurtful for him.”

The player had previously made it known he does not eat pork, and the team had accommodated that previously during team meals. According to Gilbert, the player repeated “at least 10 times” that he cannot eat pork. Wattley allowed the player to remove the pepperoni before eating it, but pork residue still remained.

During all of this, coaches and teammates were yelling at the player to finish the pizza because they were told they would all have to do extra workouts if he did not finish, according to Gilbert. The coaches also indicated there were doubts about whether the player would stay on the team if he did not eat the pizza. After finishing the pizza, coaches brought the player back outside to complete more drills.

Canton City School District Superintendent Jeff Talbert said in a statement emailed to the Cleveland Jewish News on June 2 that the initial investigation has concluded, and further disciplinary measures for staff, which have not yet been determined, will follow.

“The investigation found that the identified coaches engaged in actions that constituted inappropriate, demeaning and divisive behavior in a misguided attempt to instill discipline in the student-athletes,” Talbert said in the statement. “The football program, which has a long and proud history, is an important part of our school culture and our community. This incident does not reflect the Canton City School District’s culture of protecting the physical and emotional wellbeing of our students.”

Gilbert said this is a larger issue beyond the one incident.

“You have people here who just don’t respect the religion,” Gilbert said. “For him to order a pork pizza, he could have gotten something else. He could have gotten a veggie pizza or some other kind. But, he specifically chose a pork pizza to embarrass this kid and hurt this kid. And for the other coaches to chime in and allow this to happen just shows the total ignorance and disrespect for one’s religion.”

The Canton Police Department is looking into this situation as a possible criminal act, as well as the investigation by the school system, according to Gilbert.

Gilbert said he and the family are prepared to file a lawsuit, but will try to mediate with the school district over the next few weeks. He said the family is looking for an apology, assurances from the school that it will not allow this kind of activity again, and to add inclusion and respect to the core part of the curriculum.

According to Gilbert, the player is looking into moving to another district.

“To call this poor judgment is an understatement,” Gilbert said. “I don’t know how this coach could have the respect of the community anymore. Coaches are role models in our community. They’re looked up to. I don’t know how this can be repaired.”

The Canton City School District Board of Education scheduled a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. June 3. Potential action may follow an executive session. The meeting will be held in the Commons at McKinley Senior High School downtown campus at 521 Tuscarawas St. W in Canton. The meeting will be livestreamed at bit.ly/34GOvVX.

This is a developing story. 

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