A community college basketball player in Kansas was kicked off the school's team shortly after refusing to acknowledge the national anthem at the beginning of a game, and then getting into a scuffle with a school booster over it.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union is asking whether Rasool Samir — a Muslim student who was playing his first season for Garden City Community College — was kicked off the team and sent home to Philadelphia for refusing to take part in the national anthem for religious reasons, a protected right under the First Amendment.
"As a Muslim, Samir chose not to stand for the national anthem for religious reasons and had abstained in previous games without incident," the ACLU said in a statement. "It appears to the ACLU of Kansas that Samir was reprimanded and ultimately dismissed from the team due to his failure to participate in the national anthem, which is a violation of his First Amendment rights."
A spokeswoman for Garden City Community College referred all questions from BuzzFeed News to the school's attorney.
The school's attorney, Randall D. Grissell, did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News, but forwarded a letter sent by his firm to the ACLU, where officials confirmed Samir was kicked off the team and is no longer enrolled as a student. School officials, however, contend the decision to boot him off the team was for "disrespectful and aggressive conduct" toward the team's coach, not his decision to not participate in the national anthem.
The incident at the Kansas community college comes while the country is still in the middle of a debate over professional athletes who have decided to kneel during the playing of the national anthem as a form of protest against police shootings.
President Trump himself has weighed in on the debate, blasting the NFL for not forcing players to stand during the anthem.
Samir, however, told the Garden City Telegram after the incident that his decision not to take part in the anthem is not as a form of protest, but because of religious reasons.
"I didn't mean any disrespect at all to the fans or the flag at last night's game," he told the paper. "I am truly sorry to anyone that felt disrespected and I am also sorry to the school. I apologize for what happened."
Samir also told the paper he didn't participate in the national anthem in high school either.
"Even in high school, I never stood for the anthem. People worship the flag, and I don't do that."
The incident occurred Nov. 1, before the start of the Broncbusters' first regular game of the season. Players headed toward the locker room, but Samir was not expected to play because of an injury. He remained in the court shooting baskets.
As the national anthem played, Samir continued to shoot baskets while most people turned to face the flag. His teammates remained in the locker room.
At the end of the anthem, a Garden City Community College fan and booster identified as Jim Howard confronted Samir and a heated exchange followed. Campus police had to separate the two.
Howard, according to the paper, reached out several times trying to grab Samir.
"I've had enough of disrespecting our flag," Howard told the paper. "I've been raising money for 32 years for this college, trying to help pay for scholarships for these kids. If they're not going to respect our flag, then they need to get off our campus and out of Garden City."
Samir, who did not respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for comment, told the paper he wasn't upset about Howard approaching him, but the manner in which he did so.
"He could have just told me, 'Hey, excuse me, sir...next time the anthem comes on, go outside or whatever,'" he told the Garden City Telegram. "I would have been cool with that. I respect people's beliefs."
School officials said "different accounts indicate that Howard may or may not have actually shoved, grabbed or otherwise touched Samir," and that campus police were looking into the exchange.
School officials contend, in a letter sent to the ACLU, that Samir should have been in the locker room during that time with the rest of the players, not shooting baskets at the time.
ACLU Kansas' legal director, Lauren Bond, however, told BuzzFeed News Samir was told by an assistant coach not to follow the team into the locker room because he was not set to play.
After the altercation with the booster, however, Samir was directed into the locker room by campus police.
There, the team's coach, Brady Trenkle, told Samir to leave the gym and return to his dorm room. Grissell, in his letter to the ACLU, alleges Samir "angrily followed the team" to the floor.
"Samir was yelling at Coach Trenkle, threatening to fight the coach, and antagonizing Coach Trenkle to try make him get off the floor," the letter reads. "Trenkle told Samir to leave the floor, to which Samir responded, 'Touch me mother fucker.'"
Samir was then removed from the arena.
The school's attorney, Grissell, in the letter states Samir was kicked off the team "due to his disrespectful and aggressive conduct toward Coach Trenkle."
Samir was told he was being kicked off the team the following day. According to Grissell's letter, Samir decided he would leave the school if he was not going to be playing basketball.
"It is unfortunate Samir reacted the way he did on November 1st, but for his conduct toward Coach Trenkle, he still would be a member of the GCCC basketball team," the letter read.
Bond said Samir does not dispute that he reacted angrily toward his coach, but said the student should not have been disciplined by the school, or a booster, over his right not to participate in the anthem.
Bond told BuzzFeed News that despite the school's assertion that Samir was dismissed because of his actions toward the coach, Samir alleges school officials pointed to his decision not to take part in the national anthem when he was reprimanded by the coach in the locker room that day, when he was told to leave the arena, and when he was officially kicked off the team the following day.
Bond said school officials also pointed to Samir's heated exchange toward Howard, an "important booster," for their decision.
"Finally, Samir contends that he was dismissed from the team because of his refusal to participate in the anthem, noting that Coach Trenkle cited his protest activity during their dismissal meeting on November 2nd," the letter from the ACLU to the school reads.
Bond said the ACLU appreciates the school's attempt to clarify the incident, but the school's administrators and coaches have provided differing accounts of why Samir was dismissed.
She said attorneys are speaking with witnesses from the game, as well as looking for possible video, to try to determine what happened and why he was dismissed.
Salvador Hernandez is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Salvador Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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