CANTON, Ohio — At a special-called meeting Thursday evening, the Canton City School District’s Board of Education announced it will not be renewing the contracts of seven coaches who allegedly forced a student to eat a pepperoni pizza in front of his team, despite it being against his religious beliefs to consume pork.
"The identified coaches engaged in actions that constituted inappropriate, demeaning and divisive behavior in a misguided attempt to instill discipline into student athletes," school board President John Rinaldi said. "This behavior will not be tolerated. It has been determined that seven of the eight members of the coaching staff involved including the head coach will no longer be coaches with the Canton City School District."
Watch the meeting in the player below:
After deliberating for an hour and a half behind closed doors, the board announced head football coach Marcus Wattley and assistants Cade Brodie, Joshua Grimsley, Romero Harris, Frank McLeod, Zachary Sweat, and Tyler Thatcher have been relieved of their duties as coaches at Canton McKinley High School for their alleged involvement in the incident.
Current Athletic Director Antonio Hall was named the interim head high school football coach for the 2021-2022 season.
"We believe that the individual we hired as the interim head coach is the right individual to lead our football team back to where it should be," Superintendent Jeff Talbert said.
The incident in question happened in a school gym and was captured by school district cameras, according to Talbert.
"That video right now has not been released because our attorneys believe that is a violation of FERPA. What is on that video shows that what happened on the 24th was an ill-managed attempt to instill discipline and accountability in our students," Talbert said. "It was inappropriate. It was divisive, demeaning and again, does not align to our professional standards we hold our professionals to."
On Tuesday, with an attorney by his side, the father of a junior at McKinley Senior High School shared his anger after he told News 5 his son, who is a member of the Hebrew Israeli religious faith, was forced to eat a pepperoni pizza in front of his entire team.
That faith forbids the consumption of pork or pork residue.
“The coach had a pork pizza as a penalty for this child not showing up for practice,” attorney Edward Gilbert said. “What’s interesting is everyone on the team knows this child will not eat pork.”
Attorney Peter Pattakos, retained by Wattley and his family hours before the Thursday board meeting, said his client was trying to teach the athlete a lesson.
"That’s part of the lesson. 'Okay, you’re special? Can I do something for you? Can I get you a pizza?' 'Well, I’m hungry.' He goes and gets him a pizza," Pattakos said. "Marcus brings back the pizza. 'Oh, it has pepperoni on it. I don’t eat pork.' 'I’ll go get you some chicken fingers.' 'No, it’s okay. I’ll just eat this pizza.' So he took the pepperoni off and he ate the pizza."
Pattakos said the student was never forced or coerced to eat the pizza.
"This young man had every opportunity to get up and leave the room at any time," Pattakos said.
Administrators and school board members ultimately denied Wattley’s attorney’s request for a week-long extension into the investigation.
"They’ve been terminated without even having been spoken to," Pattakos said. "Regardless of who is right or wrong, this is not something you rush. This is too important to be rushed."
Administrators vowed to begin a new chapter for the McKinley High School football team.
"The events that occurred on that day were orchestrated and led by our head coach and the six other assistants was inappropriate, demeaning and it was a misguided attempt at enforcing accountability," Talbert said.
Wattley's attorney provided News 5 with the following written statement following the board's announcement Thursday evening:
We asked the district to postpone their decision for at least one more week to allow for this matter to be fully and fairly investigated, including upon full consideration of the testimony of the numerous Canton McKinley football players who witnessed this event and were at tonight's board meeting wanting to tell anyone who would listen that the story being advanced by the alleged victim's father and attorney is not true. For inexplicable reasons, the board denied this basic request and refused to listen to these young men, reflecting that the district's leadership is not interested in the truth of this matter, and is instead motivated by something else.
The most important thing for Mr. Wattley at this point is that the truth come out so that his name is cleared of these ridiculous charges against him, and we will make sure that happens. In the meantime, district leadership, including superintendent Jeff Talbert and every board member who approved this decision, should be ashamed, not least for making such a momentous decision based on such an obviously faulty and rushed investigation. Wattley and his staff deserved better than this, and more importantly, so did the young men in that locker room and the whole Canton McKinley community.
What we are most certain of is that this community’s unfortunate loss will be another community’s gain, and that Mr. Wattley’s excellent record as a coach, educator, and community servant will continue to speak for itself to anyone interested in the truth.
On Wednesday, Talbert released the following statement:
I’d like to thank the community for their patience as the District investigated allegations of misconduct by members of our coaching staff.
An incident occurred during a football training session on May 24th that was concerning enough to warrant the immediate action of suspending eight members of the High School Football Coaching Staff, including the head coach, while an investigation was conducted. Also, in an effort to be comprehensive, and with our student’s health and wellbeing in mind, a police report was filed by the district.
That initial investigation has been concluded.
The investigation found that the identified coaches engaged in actions that constituted inappropriate, demeaning, and divisive behavior in a misguided attempt to instill discipline in the student-athletes. This behavior will not be tolerated and further disciplinary measures for staff, which have not yet been determined, will follow. The District will continue to follow Board Policies and protocols regarding personnel issues. Once disciplinary measures are determined, in accordance with our commitment to transparency, we will release additional information.
The football program, which has a long and proud history, is an important part of our school culture and our community. This incident does not reflect the Canton City School District's culture of protecting the physical and emotional wellbeing of our students.
Let us be clear, the Canton City School District holds our coaching and general staff to the highest professional and ethical standards. Anything short of these standards is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.
Again, at the Canton City School District, the safety and well-being of our students is our top priority.
The Canton City School District Board of Education has scheduled a special meeting for Thursday, June 3, 2021, at 5:30 p.m. Potential action may follow an executive session.
The meeting will be held in the Commons at McKinley Senior High School Downtown Campus, 521 Tuscarawas Street W - Canton, Ohio, 44702.