True to the spirit of Donald Trump, the innuendo was anything but subtle. The banner, which towered above the assorted cheerleaders, football players and other teens, spelled out in giant block letters: "Make America Great Again. Trump the Tigers."
Last Friday, high schools across Alabama duked it out on the football field. But the breakaway banner, held by students of the home team Briarwood Christian School, gave this Sept. 16 game a political tinge. Another Trump-themed banner, too, hung along a chain-link fence. What was not lost on some spectators was the fact that Briarwood — a private religious school whose students are predominantly white — was facing off against Fairfield High, which has a majority black student body.
Nicole Cabrera, a former Briarwood student, told Birmingham's KTRK that the banner did not represent the entire school, saying, "I don't like Trump, and Trump doesn't like my people either."
Before the Briarwood players could tear through the campaign slogan, the crowd snapped images to share on social media. Brianna Love, who was rooting for Fairfield, uploaded a photo of the banner to Facebook on Sunday. She was upset the opposing school seemed to endorse Trump.
"You feel me I was scared for my life," she wrote in a comment beneath the photo. "When the game was over I flew out of there. Ain't no lynching my way."
The Briarwood Lions defeated the Fairfield Tigers, 27-0.
Briarwood Christian School later apologized. "The message of the sign did not represent the school's deep commitment to biblical principles and values, nor did it reflect our commitment to honoring and respecting our guests," the school said in a statement to Fox affiliate WBRC.
Conservative commenters argued it was just politically correct culture running away with a political football, as linguist William Safire might have called it.
At Alabama-based Yellowhammer News, the news site's chief executive Cliff Sims opined that "everyone involved has lost their minds" when simply invoking Trump sent "dozens of people running to their Safe Spaces." (Sims also said he would donate $1,000 to the Alabama high school whose team ran through a breakaway banner that read, "Hillary would delete this banner if she could!" in an apparent reference to Hillary Clinton's emails.)
During this season of Friday night lights, there's more than a whiff of politics in the Gatorade. There are a confluence of factors that make the high school football field a ripe medium for messages: the upcoming election, NFL players embracing the Black Lives Matter movement, the sacred status of football in American culture that promotes attendance and attention.
So the students speak. Across the country, high school athletes have knelt during the national anthem, taking up San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick's cue to protest systematic violence toward minorities. Other teenagers riff on Trump's campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" from the bleachers. At one Trump-themed pep rally in Texas, cheerleaders waved a banner in the shape of a Mexican border wall.
Students at a predominantly white school in Michigan held a Trump banner and 13-starred flag, popularly known as a "Betsy Ross" flag, at a game, for which the superintendent later apologized, noting that the flag has been adopted as a symbol by white supremacists.
Sometimes the students get in trouble. Sometimes their displays are banned.
Some critics want these teens to think long and hard about their actions. New York Times columnist David Brooks called the actions of high school football players kneeling during the national anthem in solidarity with Kaepernick "extremely counterproductive" — because their protest fractures much-needed national unity and plays into exactly the kind of "ethnic nationalism" that appears to be animating Trump's presidential campaign. The border banner was condemned as racist. The Betsy Ross flag was condemned, too; the superintendent of that school district called the 13-star flag an icon of "exclusion and hate."
Though you may not agree with teenagers' opinions, high school has never been above politics. Students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate," the Supreme Court famously ruled in 1969, concerning the case of students who wore black armbands to protest the war in Vietnam.
(High school football is not above politics, either. The Supreme Court cracked down on religious speech at games in 2000. The court argued that public school-sanctioned student prayer at football games was unconstitutional, stemming from a case in Santa Fe, Texas. Battles over prayer at football games are far from over. A coach named Joe Kennedy, from a school district in Washington state, was terminated in 2015 for his refusal to quit praying at games.)
Though constitutionally upheld, that freedom of speech is not completely unfettered. Schools can restrict students' speech under certain circumstances: 1st Amendment rights may be curbed if speech is lewd, vulgar or otherwise interferes with learning.
The Supreme Court, as Justice Abe Fortas wrote in the 1968 opinion in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, "has repeatedly emphasized the need for affirming the comprehensive authority of the States and of school officials, consistent with fundamental constitutional safeguards, to prescribe and control conduct in the schools."
As for the Briarwood Christian banner, Fairfield City Schools Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin only caught wind of the Trump message on Monday. "No one has given (or) filed an official complaint," Gonsoulin told AL.com, "but I have heard from some of the parents who felt it was disrespectful and they were wondering the intent of the sign."