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Coaches forced a teen to eat pizza against his religion, he says. Now he’s suing.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/3/2022 Lateshia Beachum
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An Ohio teen sat in a lone chair in the middle of his school’s gymnasium last year as his football teammates performed strength and running drills around him. To put an end to the punitive drills, the teen had to do one thing: eat a pepperoni pizza.

The boy, 17 at the time, refused to eat the pizza, citing a tenet of his Hebrew Israelite faith, and kicked away the box, according to a lawsuit the player and his parents filed in federal court last week.

Coaches dismissed his protests and threatened to remove him from his position on the team if he didn’t eat the pizza as instructed, the lawsuit says. He could remove the pieces of pepperoni if he wanted, though the pork residue remained.

At risk of losing his spot on the team and the respect of his teammates, he ate the pizza with its pepperoni remnants, the lawsuit states.

The coaches’ “antisemitic and shameful” actions caused the teen “substantial permanent injury,” the lawsuit says.

The teen — referred to as K.W. in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio — and his parents are suing the Canton City School District, its board and the former football coaches who were fired for allegedly forcing him to eat the pizza in May as punishment for missing a weight training class to nurse an injured shoulder.

The student, now 18, says the coaches violated his First and 14th Amendment rights by coercing him to eat the pizza that had residue from pork, food prohibited by his religion, according to the lawsuit. The teen and his family are seeking $3 million in compensation and $1 million in punitive damages in a jury trial.

Most of the coaches were dismissed after an investigation, and the teen transferred to another school and football program more than 100 miles from Canton out of concerns for his safety and well-being, the lawsuit says.

Edward Gilbert, an attorney representing the family, told The Washington Post in a statement Monday that his clients have been in “intense settlement discussions with the Canton School District,” resulting in an unspecified resolution.

“However, the district’s insurance company has reneged on the settlement thereby forcing the family to move forward with litigation,” he said. “The child is mentally devastated.”

High school football coaches lose jobs after forcing player who can’t consume pork to eat pepperoni pizza

Peter Pattakos, an attorney for most of the former coaches, told The Post in a statement that his clients are the “real victims in this matter,” considering the amount of evidence that contrasts the teen’s claim.

“After Ed Gilbert, his clients, and the district officials who wrongly terminated the coaches refused to retract their false statements and reinstate these excellent coaches, we sued them for defamation in a case that has been pending in Stark County since July,” Pattakos said.

The defamation lawsuit paints another picture of K.W., one in which he is worried about his college prospects after an injury and increasingly poor behavior. His coaches, especially head coach Marcus Wattley, tried to give him hope and set him on a better path, that lawsuit says.

Weeks before the incident with the pizza, K.W. had shown up to practice “demonstrating subpar effort in team exercises and drills and displaying continued disrespect” to his teammates and coaches, the defamation lawsuit says.

That day in the gym, the coaches’ lawsuit says, he told them he didn’t feel like showing up to the weight training session he missed. To teach him a lesson about the importance of work ethic and team effort, Wattley had K.W. eat the pizza while his teammates worked out to show him that “it’s easy to be selfish behind people’s backs, but not so easy when others are watching,” the coaches’ lawsuit says.

The teen never told the coaches of his religious beliefs before that day, the defamation lawsuit says, and thanked them for the lesson after he had eaten the pizza.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hebrew Israelites’ faith “is rooted in Black Judaism, a belief system birthed in the late 1800s by Black Christians from the South’s Pentecostal ‘Holiness’ movement. They claimed to have received a revelation: America’s recently emancipated slaves were God’s chosen people, the true Hebrews.”

Judaism’s kosher laws and the Hebrew Israelite faith forbid the consumption of pork.

The Canton City School District and its board, the family’s lawsuit says, did not train the coaches to respect dietary restrictions and religious beliefs, and the complaint accuses the district of hiring them and keeping them employed without proper evaluations and training.

Jeff Talbert, Canton City School District’s superintendent, told The Post that the lawsuit, which he says is without merit, will be addressed through the legal process.

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