Lower Merion boys' basketball team protests for Muslims, refugees and immigrants

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Lower Merion players wearing their T-shirts during the national anthem before their game against Strath Haven on Feb. 14, 2017.

The Lower Merion boys' basketball players created a stir before the opening tip of the Central League championship game Tuesday against Strath Haven.

They came out for warm-ups wearing black T-shirts with white lettering, with these words on the front: "I am a Muslim. I am a refugee. I am an immigrant. I am an American. I am an Ace."

Wearing those T-shirts in their last four games, the Aces have expressed their message of solidarity for refugees and immigrants.

The players interlocked arms during the playing of the national anthem Tuesday night at Marple Newtown, with one kneeling in a sign of protest.

"The district supports and respects our students' right to express themselves and share their voices in an appropriate manner," Doug Young, the Lower Merion School District communications director and an assistant coach for the basketball team, said in a statement Wednesday.

Young added, "The conversations the kids had before they started doing this were very powerful. The kids were in fact very open, honest and forthright."

The players are responding to the current unrest regarding the president's recent travel ban and other social movements that have caused many political demonstrations around the country and the world.

"We've had some very good conversations about this behind closed doors," longtime Lower Merion head coach Gregg Downer said. "The kids decided they wanted to do this, and we support what they're doing."

While only Aces senior reserve guard Najja Walker-X kneeled during the national anthem Tuesday, a few more had done the same in previous games.

Negative feedback, of course, has come with the players' actions.

"Before the T-shirt, the coaches were hearing about [kneeling during the anthem] in certain situations," Downer said. "That's OK. I respect the opinions of others."

Downer added, "This is not out of disrespect to the military. The T-shirt has brought some clarity to the players' reasoning. We're standing as a united front. At the end of the day, we're still a basketball team."

Walker, who is sidelined with a fractured finger, and the Lower Merion players crafted a written statement regarding their stand.

It reads in part, "What we do want to convey as a full team is that no matter where you come from, no matter who you are, you should be welcomed, respected, and heard. As a team, we believe in fighting for the rights of all - protecting, defending, and giving voice to those who feel marginalized, who live in fear, and who face injustice.

"Lastly, we want to make clear our respect for those who serve and have served our country defending freedom and liberty. We are grateful for your contributions."

On Tuesday, once the national anthem was over and the Lower Merion players removed the T-shirts that have drawn both support and criticism, the Aces earned their first Central League crown since 2014 with an 82-60 triumph over Strath Haven.

"There hasn't been a lot of negative feedback," Young said. "I think most people understand that it's a message of inclusivity for all. I think that's what the players are trying to get at with this."

It is expected the Lower Merion players will continue to wear the T-shirts in the PIAA District 1 Class 6A playoffs. The No. 10-seeded Aces will host No. 23 Central Bucks South in a first-round matchup at 7 p.m. Friday.

robrien@phillynews.com

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