The Canton City School District unanimously voted 5-0 June 3 not to rehire McKinley Senior High head football coach Marcus Wattley and six of his assistants after they forced a player to eat a pepperoni pizza as a punishment for missing football practice.

The school board made the decision during a special meeting, which included a one hour and 23 minute executive session to discuss the fate of the coaches. Assistant coaches Cade Brodie, Joshua Grimsley, Romero Harris, Frank McLeod, Zachary Sweat and Tyler Thatcher also will not have their extracurricular contracts renewed after the 2020-21 school year. They had been on paid administrative leave.

“The Canton City School District holds our coaches and general staff to the highest professional and ethical standards,” John Rinaldi, president of the Canton City School District, said during the meeting. “Anything short of these standards is unacceptable and will not be permitted. Moving forward, our mission as a school district is to inspire competent, creative and open minded learners. Our athletic programs play a big part in this mission.”

Rinaldi said the athletic department will reinforce the district’s behavioral expectations as they pertain to their coaching staff before each season begins in order to safeguard student well-being.

The 17-year-old player is a Black Hebrew Israelite. This religion forbids the consumption of pork or any pork residue on foods.

Edward Gilbert, the attorney representing the rising senior and his family, told the Cleveland Jewish News on June 2 the player, who has not been identified, missed a voluntary workout on May 20 while nursing a shoulder injury. Following the day off and the weekend, Wattley and the assistant coaches told him to go to the gym and eat an entire pepperoni pizza in front of about 35 teammates, according to Gilbert.

The player had previously made it known that he does not eat pork, and the team had accommodated that previously during team meals. According to Gilbert, the player repeated “at least 10 times” during this incident that he cannot eat pork. Wattley allowed the player to remove pepperoni before eating it, but pork residue still remained.

During all of this, coaches and teammates were yelling at the player to finish the pizza because they were told they would all have to do extra workouts if he did not finish, according to Gilbert.

The Canton Police Department is looking into this situation as a possible criminal act, as well as the investigation by the school system, according to Gilbert.

In response to this incident and prior to the meeting, James Pasch, the Anti-Defamation League Cleveland regional director, made a statement via Twitter that said: “Suspending the coaches who reportedly forced a student to eat pork in violation of his religious beliefs is a good first step, but more important steps are needed to start healing for the victim and school community. No student should be forced to violate his religious beliefs; it is outrageous, unacceptable, and unconstitutional. Our office has reached out to the Canton City School District to offer our resources.”

McKinley Athletic Director Antonio Hall will serve as the interim head coach for the 2021 football season. Hall is a graduate of McKinley, as well as having played in the National Football League and Canadian Football League.

This is a developing story.

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