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High School Reverses Ban on 'I Can't Breathe' Shirts at Basketball Tournament

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This past week, a Northern California high school made national waves by banning a local school's boys' and girls' basketball teams from participating in a three-day tournament unless they agreed not to don T-shirts with the words "I Can't Breathe" during warm-ups, according to Lisa Leff of The Associated Press.

On Monday, however, the school did an about face, allowing the students to wear the shirts during warm-ups "as long as they do not cause problems," Leff reported.

The Mendocino High School girls' basketball team first wore the "I Can't Breathe" shirts before a game against Fort Bragg High School on Dec. 16, roughly one week after Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose became the first professional athlete to wear such a shirt during pregame warm-ups. The shirt refers to the final words of Eric Garner, the New York man who died over the summer after being placed in a chokehold by a police officer.

Last week, Fort Bragg's athletic director reached out to Mendocino to say that their boys' and girls' basketball teams would not be allowed to participate in the three-day tournament beginning Monday, according to Leff. All but one of the boys' basketball players agreed not to wear the shirts, which earned their reinstatement, but not enough of the girls' players made a similar agreement, causing Fort Bragg to find another team to replace them.

"To protect the safety and well-being of all tournament participants it is necessary to ensure that all political statements and or protests are kept away from this tournament," Fort Bragg Principal Rebecca Walker wrote in a statement Friday, per Leff. "We are a small school district that simply does not have the resources to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff, students, and guests at the tournament should someone get upset and choose to act out."

The Mendocino basketball players released their own statement, via the Fort Bragg Advocate-News, explaining their rationale behind wearing the shirts:

The Mendocino High School varsity girls and boys basketball teams made the decision to wear the shirts without the initial encouragement of any parent, coach, or other adult. We, the players, wanted to express our support for the people who face prejudices, racism, and police brutality daily in our country and convey our concern about these injustices to the public.

We are very fortunate to live in a community in which these types of wrongs are uncommon, and respect our local law enforcement officers fully. We appreciate police officers and their difficult and sometimes dangerous job, but at the same time we condemn police brutality that does exist in our country and feel even small communities like ours should promote awareness of such crucial matters.

Facing mounting pressure, Fort Bragg school officials reversed course Monday, allowing players to wear the shirts during warm-ups and spectators to don the shirts, too, so long as they don't cause "any serious problems" at the tournament. However, since the Mendocino girls' team had already been replaced due to the T-shirt ban, they're unable to compete.

Jone Lemos, whose daughter, Jin Jackson, is a co-captain of the girls' team, expressed her pride to Leff about the girls' decision to take a stance.

"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."

Photo: Members of the Mendocino High School girls basketball team wear the "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts before a recent game. (Chris Calder/Fort Bragg Advocate-News/AP)

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