A former member of the Canton City High School football team in Ohio has sued his school and former coaches over alleged “anti-Semitic” actions of forcing him to eat a pizza covered with pepperoni grease. The African American high school senior, known in court documents as “K.W.” or “Junior” claims that his coaches knew he was a member of the Hebrew-Israelite religious faith and did not eat pork products on that basis, but forced him to eat an entire pepperoni pizza as a punishment for missing a workout.
K.W. and his parents filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Ohio last week, raising claims for over $12 million in damages from the district and the former coaching staff. According to the complaint, in May 2021, K.W. missed a weight-lifting workout due to a slight shoulder injury. When he failed to complete the mandatory workout, K.W. was forced to sit in the middle of a gymnasium and consume an entire pepperoni pizza while the rest of the team carried heavy weights around the perimeter of the room. The student asserts that at the time of the incident, he had been a member of the football team for over two years, that he was known to be a member of the Hebrew-Israelite religious faith, and that his dietary restrictions were well-known by coaching staff.
Per the complaint, after being instructed to eat the pizza, the student:
[O]bjected and reminded Defendants’ Employees that he does not eat pork, due to his religious beliefs.
39. In fact, Junior kicked the pizza box away from him, refusing to touch the pork pepperoni pizza (this incident was caught by security footage).
40. Defendants’ Employees retrieved the pizza box and again ordered Junior to eat the pork pepperoni pizza, in violation of his religion.
41. Junior stated a minimum of ten times that he did not eat pork or pork residue.
42. At this point, Defendants’ Employees then stated that Junior could remove the pork pepperoni slices; however, the residue was clearly still covering the pizza and Junior continued to object.
43. Defendants’ Employees ordered Junior to eat the balance of the pizza or stated that his tenure on the Canton McKinley Football Team would be in jeopardy.
44. Meanwhile, Junior’s teammates were forced by Defendants’ Employees to circle the gym, perform strength exercises with the 40-pound weights and practice running/sprinting drills and were not allowed to stop until Junior finished the entire pizza.
45. Junior was subject to threats from his teammates if he did not eat the pizza quickly (again, these facts can be verified by security footage).
46. Junior, against his religious beliefs, was forced to eat the pork grease pizza.
After the student finished the pizza, the complaint claims, he was immediately “forced to run up and down the football field and practice ‘duck walks.'” As a result of the incident, the family claims to have been forced to transfer the student to a different school district.
Surveillance video of the incident is available here:
The lawsuit alleges that the defendants not only violated K.W.’s free exercise of religion, but also illegally discriminated against him on the bases of both religion and race. Moreover, it raises claims against the school district and school board of failure to train, negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The family’s federal civil rights lawsuit is the second case that has resulted from the alleged pizza incident. In July 2021, the football coach, Marcus Wattley, sued the player, his father, and several school officials for defamation.
In his defamation complaint, Wattley touted himself as having had “an impeccable reputation” for close to two decades, and argued that “the coaches did not force K.W. to eat anything, let alone force-fed him any food that they knew to be against his religion to eat.”
Rather, Wattley explained in his account of the events, the 20-minute punitive exercise was one in which underperforming players were subjected to “the royal treatment,” whereby some players ate a meal while the rest of the team performed exercises with 45-pound plates around the perimeter of the room. K.W. was offered chicken nuggets as an alternative, according to the complaint, but he opted to eat pizza after scraping off the cheese and pepperoni.
Following the incident last May, the Canton City School District conducted a formal investigation, after which Superintendent Jeff Talbert released a video addressing the allegations and findings. Talbert said investigators reviewed extensive video footage of the event, which “clearly shows the identified coaches engaging in actions that constituted inappropriate, demeaning and divisive behavior in a misguided attempt to instill discipline in the student-athletes.” As a result of these findings, Wattley and several assistant coaches were fired.
Edward L. Gilbert, attorney for the plaintiffs, issued a press release calling the facts in the case “undisputed.”
“The family has been in intense settlement discussions with the Canton School District,” Gilbert said. The attorney also said an agreed-upon resolution was “reneged on” by the District’s insurance company, “thereby forcing the family to move forward with litigation.”
“The effected [sic] child has been forced to leave the District due to threats from his teammates and members of the Canton community,” Gilbert continued. “The child is mentally devastated.”
Law&Crime reached out to counsel for the defendants for comment.
You can read the full complaint here:
[screengrab via WKYC]
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