Chris Calder / Fort Bragg Advocate-News / AP

School basketballers OK’d to wear ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts

In reversal, Mendocino High School players can wear ‘I can’t breathe’ shirts in warm-ups at Fort Bragg tournament

A California school district on Monday reversed a basketball tournament's 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, last week Bruce Triplett, the athletic director at Fort Bragg High School told the boys' and girls' teams from Mendocino High School they could not compete in the three-day event if they wore the shirts — inspired by the last words of Eric Garner, the New York man who died after an officer put him in a chokehold — at the tournament. The two Mendocino varsity teams first wore the shirts before a Dec. 16 game against Fort Bragg. 

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 banning the shirts violated the free speech rights of student-athletes.

Spectators will also be allowed to wear the shirts, and 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, which is still mourning 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."

Before the district reversed its decision, Triplett reinstated the Mendocino boys' team after all but one of the players agreed to forgo the shirts. It played its first game of the tournament on Monday morning and has two more games scheduled.

Too few members of the girls' team accepted the condition, and another high school was invited to take its place, Boyd said.

Professional basketball players such as LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving have worn "I can't breathe" shirts during warm-ups without repercussions from the NBA.

The Associated Press

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