NORMAN, Okla. – It started in the most ordinary of ways. As they waited for their game to begin on Jan. 15, two teenage basketball players, Norman High School’s Chantae Embry and Myka Perry, were chilling in the stands as the junior varsity played.
“We were about to play Moore High School and we were in their gym and me and Myka Perry were just having a conversation,” Embry, a senior, said. “It just came up in the conversation.”
By “it,” she means the suggestion that Norman – the top-ranked team in Oklahoma, with half a dozen Division I recruits – start kneeling before every game to protest police brutality, racial inequality and social injustice.
“I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about,” said Perry, a junior. “But something came up about kneeling and then me and Chantae were like, ‘We should ask Coach Neal if we could do that.’ ”
The two girls – Perry, who is white, Embry, who is Black – got their nine teammates to agree. Then the two went searching for their coach, Michael Neal, whom they spotted sitting behind the JV bench. Perry said she was nervous but determined. Neal was listening to something on his earphones. When Perry tapped him on the shoulder, it took a few seconds before he realized someone was trying to get his attention. The girls asked if it would be OK to start kneeling before each game. They mentioned their teammates were on board and, if he agreed to it, they’d begin that night, in about an hour.
Neal grew up in the Dallas area. In the mid-2000s, he came to Norman, where he was a sharpshooting guard at the University of Oklahoma. He’d been a Sooner long enough to know that kneeling during the national anthem would be unpopular in most parts of the state. He also knew it might not be that big of a problem for many people in Norman, a more liberal area.
“For me, coaching is empowering our girls to be the best version of themselves they can possibly be, so if this is the way you want to be an example and show that you can love each other and be united and be together using basketball as that platform, then why not?” Neal said in an interview. He told the girls they could go ahead.
The team would kneel for the next two months, mostly without incident – until March 11. That’s the day that Norman was playing in a state tournament game outside of Tulsa. The game was being carried on a national network that streams high school sports. A former youth pastor named Matt Rowan was doing the play-by-play.
Before tipoff, as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was piped in through the public-address system, Rowan saw Norman kneeling. Assuming his mic was turned off because the broadcast was on a break, Rowan objected to the kneeling in the strongest possible way, telling his broadcast partner the Lady Tigers were “f—ing [N-words].”
High school athletes have been kneeling since 2016, joining a movement that started when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt that year to protest what he said was abusive policing and other issues of social injustice. But many of those other prep teams knelt for one game, not continuously like the Norman girls. Or they weren’t playing in a red state, as were the Lady Tigers. In all, the Norman girls knelt for 13 straight games in a season cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. In Oklahoma, by all accounts, they’re the first team to kneel for the season.
While kneeling was in vogue in 2016 in high school gyms, on football fields and even some baseball diamonds, as well as in other sports, such displays appear to be dying down. Kaepernick has been out of the NFL for four years. He accused team owners of colluding against him, filed a grievance and reached an undisclosed financial settlement. He has continued his activism off the field while also becoming a content creator.
But the Norman girls are part of a new generation of activists inspired less by pioneers in the professional ranks and more by what they’re seeing on their social media feeds.
“With social media, everything is instant nowadays,” said Perry’s dad, Jeff. “So you’re seeing the George Floyds as they happen.”
Floyd died while being arrested by Minneapolis police officers, including one who kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes after Floyd was handcuffed. His killing has struck a particular chord with the younger generation, players and parents interviewed for this story say, as did the killings of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
The two leaders behind the Norman team’s protest – Perry, 17, and Embry, 18 – have been two of Oklahoma’s best young basketball players since elementary school.
Embry and her mom, Rhonda, moved to Norman from the smaller town of Prague so they could be in a bigger city. Also, Embry had been averaging 23 points a game and she wanted more of a challenge to help her prepare for college basketball.
At Norman High this year, the 6-foot-1 Embry averaged a double-double, scoring 13.1 points a game along with 10.1 rebounds. Neal was happy to see her coming through the door.
“If you’re here in Oklahoma, you know who that is,” Neal said. “And when she came here, I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness, that girl is here.’ ”
Perry is an offensive-minded player who can slash and knock down the 3-ball. This season, she scored 10.6 points a game, grabbed 3.9 boards and added 2.0 assists. “Myka is always on a mission,” Neal said. “Doesn’t talk a lot, but you can tell that whenever she’s here and she’s working, ‘I’m focused strictly on this.’ And she works like a professional.”
Jeff Perry learned that his daughter’s team was kneeling from the newspaper, not from his daughter. But he understands why she feels compelled to speak out. “She’s seen how her friends have been treated differently than her growing up,” Jeff Perry, an occupational therapist, said. “I’ve always wanted her to fight for what she feels strongly about.”
Because Perry is white, reporters have wanted her to speak about being an organizer of the kneeling campaign. But until speaking with , she had declined.
“We had to give other people voices. … And it’s not just Black Lives Matter,” she said. “That was a big part of it. But it was also everything: Women, women rights. Everything.”
As for Embry, her mother says she was devastated by the killing of Arbery, the 25-year-old Brunswick, Georgia, man shot down as he jogged in his hometown on a Sunday afternoon in February last year. Three white men, including a former law enforcement officer, face murder charges in his death.
Rhonda Embry said her daughter kept telling her that the youngest of her three brothers, a college student, could be killed like Arbery, for no reason. “She just kept thinking, ‘That could be him. He could just be walking to the convenience store at college,’ ” Rhonda Embry said.
Embry said her reason for kneeling isn’t complicated.
“I just think there’s a line and it’s split right and wrong,” Embry said. “Human rights is not a discussion. It shouldn’t be up for discussion.”
Black people and Native Americans in Oklahoma have long found themselves on the wrong side of the human rights divide to which Embry refers. The evidence ranges from the displacement of Native Americans by white settlers in the 1890s to 1921 (100 years ago next month), when a white racist mob set fire to Black-owned businesses and homes in the Greenwood district of Tulsa, killing anywhere from 100 to 300 Black residents and leaving thousands homeless.
Norman has its own historical racial stains. Until 1967, Norman was a “sundown town,” which meant Black people couldn’t be in the city limits after sundown, or they’d risk being jailed, injured or worse. Last year, the Norman city council passed a resolution apologizing for being a sundown town.
“It’s a part of who we are,” Mayor Breea Clark said. “We don’t have to be proud of it. But we can acknowledge it, apologize for it and move forward.”
“The sundown town apology was a first step in recognizing that what happened into the ’70s was wrong,” city councilwoman Kate Bierman said, “and without a vocal apology, I don’t think that there was ever a chance that we would’ve been able to move forward. But that policy in and of itself is just performative without additional actions.”
Today in Norman, Hispanics are about 8% of the city’s population of 125,000, with Asians, Black people and Native Americans each making up 4% to 5%, U.S. Census figures show. This year, the city hired its first diversity and equity officer.
“Norman is progressive to a limit,” said Ashley Morrison, a mother of four who lives on the east side. “And that limit is what parameters are being set by people who are mostly privileged, mostly white, mostly male, mostly upper-class.”
Technology has helped expose some of that privilege that, in past years, might not have been revealed.
In 2020, a Norman police officer responded to a departmentwide email about coronavirus protective masks by sending his own email with images featuring men dressed in Ku Klux Klan masks from the movie Django Unchained. He kept his job.
In 2019, a Norman woman pleaded guilty after writing and spray-painting racist, anti-gay and anti-Semitic messages on a number of buildings and homes, including churches, public schools, an arts center and the Democratic Party headquarters. (She pleaded guilty and was admitted to a mental health program.)
And in 2015, a video appeared online that showed the university’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members singing a racist song about keeping Black people out of the fraternity. The fraternity was shut down.
At least one of the Norman players, senior guard Kelbie Washington, says she’s seen intolerance firsthand. Washington, who has accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Oklahoma, has a white mom and Black dad. Growing up in Norman, she said, “I’ve been called the N-word.”
When Perry and Embry first approached their teammates about kneeling, one player, freshman Zya Vann, didn’t know if she wanted to do it.
“I really care about what people think about me,” Zya, who is 15, said. “I won’t lie, but I do.”
When it was time to kneel, Zya said she just let her instincts lead her. “Everyone went down on their knees. I was like, ‘OK, I think I’m going to do it,’ ” she said.
“We’re a family and we were all aboard, especially with everything that was happening in the summer with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd,” Washington said.
On a recent rainy Monday evening, a half-dozen Lady Tigers gathered with their coaches and parents at Gaberino’s Homestyle Italian restaurant in Norman. The group was split up into two large tables – one for six players, all Division I prospects, and one for eight parents and a sibling.
There would be no speeches – a team banquet would be two nights later – but once everyone was seated, Neal would look down at his phone, beam broadly and make an announcement: All six girls in the room had earned a spot on the all-conference team as members of either the first, second or third team or sixth man of the year.
At the players’ table, the two seniors, Embry and Washington, sat at one end. Embry is headed for Texas Tech and Washington will stay in Norman to play at Oklahoma. The two juniors also knew their college plans: Perry has committed to Florida and Mikayla Parks is committed to Kansas State. Sophomore Aaliyah Henderson sat between the seniors and juniors, and freshman Zya took a spot on the other end of the table. (Vann’s sister, Skylar, stars at Oklahoma.)
The players’ table is a melting pot: Three are biracial (Vann, Parks and Washington), two Black (Embry and Henderson) and one white (Perry). Their diversity, they say, is their strength.
“The reason we all connect is because we’re all different,” said Washington, the team’s leader in points (14.0), assists (4.7), steals (4.2) and, according to Neal, passion. “We all know each other’s perspectives. With us being different colors, different races, I think that just make it better.”
Parks added: “When you grow up in like a family that knows about what has been going on in the past, a family with different races, that just makes it better. It makes us more aware about what goes in the world and what’s right and what’s wrong.”
They all agree that technology and social media, mostly TikTok, help them know what’s going on, not only with dances and fads but with social justice issues.
Over at the adults’ table, Washington’s dad, Robert Washington, provided some insight into his daughter and her teammates and friends. “We’ve worked really hard trying to make sure our kids stay conscientious, understand what’s going on in the world and the impact that [they] can have on other people,” he said, as the other parents nodded in agreement. “It’s very important that they have those social skills.”
Other than an adult fan at an away game calling the team “ghetto,” the Lady Tigers said they knelt 10 times during the anthem without any notable incidents going into the state championship tournament. “Some people, obviously, were 100% behind us,” Perry said. “But we know there were people who didn’t want us to do it, mainly from other schools.”
Another team kneeling at another level of play in another state – East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee – was catching more flak than the Lady Tigers. The Buccaneers had decided to kneel for reasons similar to those of the Norman girls. All of the state’s 27 GOP state senators signed a letter calling for an end to kneeling and other on-court demonstrations.
As this was all playing out, the Lady Tigers headed to the team’s neutral-site quarterfinal game against Midwest City High School in the state tournament on March 11. The game was being played at Sapulpa High School, which is a little more than two hours northeast of Norman, near Tulsa.
The matchup was being streamed over the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Network, which airs games from teams all over the nation. Rowan had been contracted by the network to call the game, officials said. He was broadcasting with another announcer, Scott Sapulpa.
After the announcers came on air, Rowan told the audience that the broadcast was going to a break during the playing of the national anthem. At that point, he mistakenly thought his mic was off. As the anthem played, Rowan saw that the Norman team was taking a knee.
“They’re kneeling?” Rowan asked. “F—ing [N-words]. I hope Norman gets their ass kicked.”
“F— them,” Rowan said next. “I hope they lose.”
“Come on, Midwest City. They’re going to kneel like that. Hell no.”
In the last comments caught on tape, Rowan said this:
“Did they even salute the flag? Come on, Norman. F—ing [N-words].”
The Lady Tigers were on the floor and didn’t hear what Rowan had said. They beat a scrappy Midwest City team. Back at their hotel that night, Neal told them what had happened.
“I wanted to be upfront and honest with them and say, ‘This is what was said,’ ” Neal recalled. “And obviously the looks on their faces and their emotions were going a hundred mph.”
Neal said he told the players that “we’re not going to pay attention to it right now. You’ve got a job to do. But most importantly, our administration and your coaches have your backs … so you can go play some basketball and do the things that you came to do.”
Rowan quickly issued an apology, which included the statement that his remarks were caused by a spike in his blood sugar, which had made him disoriented. Medical experts reject Rowan’s claim that diabetes contributed to his comments.
The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association (OSSAA) and NFSH Network issued statements apologizing for the comments.
David Jackson, executive director of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association, which oversees high school sports in the state, said the association is reviewing policies and will suggest changes at its June board meeting. Jackson also noted that Rowan was pulled from doing any more games.
“It was as appalling as anything I’ve seen working in education and that’s been 36 years,” said Jackson, who is Black.
Rowan’s contract with the NFHS Network is going through a legal review, Jackson said. The NFHS Network didn’t return calls or emails. Nor did Rowan. Sapulpa, who was calling the game with Rowan, sued two media organizations for initially saying it was he who made the derogatory comments, according to his lawsuit. He also sued the NFSH Network and Rowan.
Sapulpa sent a letter to the team, the coach and the school superintendent condemning Rowan’s comments. In the letter, he offered his recollection of the moment:
“My thoughts were somewhat distracted in preparing for the game when I heard Rowan begin to talk during the Anthem. Before I knew it, Rowan spewed his racist slur. In the moment, I basically froze because I was shocked. Rowan then turned the microphones off, at which time I turned to him in disbelief and voiced my displeasure with him. Within seconds the starters were announced, the game started, and I tried my best to do the job I was there to do.”
Clarence Hill Jr., pastor of Antioch Community Church in Norman, said that to change the culture, people have to hold each other accountable. And he noted that, at least on the tape, no one challenged Rowan.
“Here you have an announcer sharing what he really thinks because he believes no one is listening. But you have someone else who’s in the booth and you don’t hear him checking him up, ‘Dude, what was that you just said? I don’t do that. I don’t talk like that. I think you need to change some things. I’m not going with that,’ ” Hill said.
“A lot of the courage that needs to be shown, it needs to be shown between family members and friends,” Hill said. “I would bet that he’s used that language before around others when there weren’t any microphones on.”
The Norman girls had promised each other that the kneeling wouldn’t affect their focus on winning a state championship. When they made that promise, they didn’t know what would come their way. But thanks to Rowan’s tirade, they were in the middle of a national firestorm.
The Lady Tigers had two more games to win if they were going to be the state champs. Before the next game, the state semifinals, word spread that their opponent, Union High School of Tulsa, was planning to kneel alongside Norman.
“When we heard news about the guy on the sports call, it was disappointing,” said Union coach Joe Redmond. “I’m a 47-year-old man, so I’m not going to pretend I was shocked by it. I knew my girls well enough that I knew that they’d react one way or another. I circled them all up and said, ‘I believe in you as people.’ ”
When the Norman team arrived to play Union the day after Rowan’s remarks, all eyes were on the Tigers. “When we walked in, we just immediately saw everybody turn around and look at us like, ‘That’s Norman,’ ” Parks said. “We just kept our heads straight. And then when the national anthem started playing, we all definitely got kind of emotional when Union decided to kneel with us. It made a really big impact on us that we weren’t alone.”
That moment had a big impact also on Polly Henderson, the mother of Aaliyah Henderson. “Tears rolled down my eyes to let me know these young people are going to stand together,” she said. “That was the best feeling.”
“The support that Tulsa Union showed during that time was all that one could ask for,” Neal said. “It goes to show that the sport is more about the love and togetherness that we were supposed to have as a society.”
Norman won a close game, 53-50, and beat Bixby 48-37 the next day to win the state title. They were given a police escort on their 150-mile ride back to Norman High. At the school, there was a rally and party, replete with gift bags for the team, a disc jockey and a proclamation from the state legislature. “I hope the girls take from this – their community has their back,” said Clark, the mayor.
Meanwhile, at Eastern Tennessee State University, Jason Shay, the first-year head men’s basketball coach who supported his players’ decision to kneel, ended up resigning at the end of the season. His players, many of whom have now entered the transfer portal, say he lost his job because he didn’t stop them from kneeling.
Perry’s father Jeff says his daughter and many of her contemporaries are on a mission.
“When this first started,” he said, “she said, ‘My generation’s going to change the world.’ ”