Ohio football coaches allegedly force Jewish student to eat pork for missing practice

Updated: Jun. 2, 2021 at 11:38 AM EDT
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CANTON, Ohio (WOIO) - A high school football coach was placed on administrative leave Wednesday after he reportedly forced a football player to violate the tenants of his religion by eating pork.

The Canton City School district also suspended an additional seven other members of the high school football coaching staff.

“I mean it just crosses a line on every level, it’s just wrong,” said the family’s attorney, Edward L. Gilbert.

Coach Wattley Marcus and seven assistant coaches forced a McKinley High School football player to eat a pepperoni pizza after the 17-year-old student-athlete missed a weight lifting session on May 20, according to the family’s attorney Edward L. Gilbert.

What happened four days later as punishment for missing the practice was traumatizing and disrespectful for the McKinley High junior, who is Jewish and keeps Kosher, Gilbert said.

“They order him to go into the gym. He sits in a chair,” said Gilbert. “There is a pizza box on the floor. He picks up the pizza — they tell him he has to, as punishment, eat that whole pizza.”

It is common knowledge among the football community, Gilbert said, that the 17-year-old does not eat pork for religious reasons.

“In his view, the whole pizza was spoiled. The whole pizza was something that could not be ingested,” said Gilbert. “He was ordered to eat that, and if he did not eat it then he would be most likely removed from the team, and the other teammates would have to do extra exercise that day. So you have the whole team around in this gym. You have eight coaches there yelling at him that he has to eat this stuff.”

After the player finished the pizza he was instructed to do further exercises, the attorney said.

“It’s our view that certainly for religious reasons this was inappropriate,” Gilbert said. “It was a dumb thing to do by the coach, and we haven’t been able to understand what was in this coach’s mind at the time.”

“To punish a kid thing like this for his religious beliefs is certainly beyond, it’s ridiculous,” he said.

The student’s family is considering a first amendment lawsuit against the school district, Gilbert said.

Beyond the possibility of a lawsuit, the athlete and his family are trying to navigate the social and emotional fallout from the incident.

“I know that they’re very uncomfortable, and, as you know, these coaches are role models for young men and women,” said Gilbert. “It’s going to affect them for the rest of their lives. We don’t know if he’s gonna go back to the school or not. Most likely he will not.”

Gilbert says this young man is a star athlete, and even though he’s only a junior, he’s already been offered full rides to several colleges. Now his family is unsure if he’ll return to McKinley high or its esteemed football program.

“They are really taking it very difficult because this is a situation where their religion is being disrespected, they are being disrespected and their son in front of the whole team has been disrespected,” Gilbert said.

19 News tried to reach out to head coach Marcus Wattley for comment, but so far we haven’t heard back.

The school district issued a statement on its website. Read it in its entirety here:

At the Canton City Schools, the safety and wellbeing of our students is our top priority.

An incident occurred during a football training session that was concerning enough to warrant immediate action by the Canton City School District. That immediate action was the suspension of eight members of the High School Football Coaching Staff, including the head coach, while an investigation is conducted.

The incident calls into question whether appropriate team management, discipline, and player accountability infrastructures are in place.

The District is nearing the completion of its investigation regarding this incident. Once a conclusion is reached, following our commitment to transparency, the District will provide additional information.

The football program, which has a long and impressive history, is an important part of our school culture and our community. 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.

Let us be clear, the Canton City School District holds all staff to the highest professional and ethical standards. Anything short of these standards is unacceptable.

As educators, we are united in the pursuit of creating an inclusive and safe learning environment for our students in the classroom and beyond.

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