CANTON, Ohio — Newly-released video shows the May 24 McKinley High School football practice during which a student was allegedly forced to eat a pepperoni pizza against his religious beliefs, an incident that resulted in the removal of the team's head coach and five assistant coaches.
The student, who is kosher and does not eat pork as part of his religion, was allegedly forced to eat pepperoni pizza as punishment for being late to practice.
In the video, shared with News 5 by the student’s attorney, you can see the players enter the gym for practice. The student sits in a chair in the middle of the gym and is handed what appears to be a pizza box.
The student’s teammates surround him and begin working out. About 5 minutes later, he picks up the box and seemingly starts to eat the pizza.
The video has no audio, and the attorney for the dismissed head coach, Peter Pattakos, says that's crucial, because if there was sound, you'd be able to hear the coach giving the student a choice to eat chicken nuggets instead of pizza. He also said he has collected testimony from 14 eyewitnesses backing up the claim that the student was not forced to eat the pizza.
The student’s attorney, Edward Gilbert, disputes that claim.
“You will see no chicken McNuggets in this video,” Gilbert said in a news release provided to News 5. “Further, you will see that the child was the subject of taunting by several teammates. One of which attempted to physically assault the child and had to be held back several times.”
Gilbert said the family has asked the district attorney and the FBI to open a hate crime investigation in this case “to determine if there was a criminal violation involving the Hate Crime Acts based on religious beliefs.”
Pattakos claims that members of the school board wanted to install their own coaches, and used this opportunity to dismiss the coaches. He said the coaches are considering a lawsuit if they don't get their jobs back.
Last week, district Superintendent Jeff Talbert released a video to "set the record straight" and defend the district's dismissal of the coaches.
"False and inaccurate information has been purposely provided to news sources regarding the school district’s actions in recent days—these false accusations go against the very fabric of who we are as an institution of learning that is dedicated to student achievement and success. At Canton City Schools, we believe in honesty, integrity, and transparency. In the spirit of cooperation, we would like to set the record straight on how events truly transpired so as to protect certain parties who now unwittingly find themselves in the middle of a story they themselves did not create."
Talbert then provided a timeline of events that led to the coaches' dismissals, including the fact that the "investigation established that the behavior of the then-coaching staff constituted inappropriate, demeaning, and divisive behavior and it was unbecoming of the teaching profession. Their actions demonstrated extraordinarily poor judgment."
Shortly after the video was released, Pattakos refuted the district's claims, saying: "Jeff Talbert came out today with a what we see as an extremely pathetic and revealing attempt at damage control that only confirms the falsity of the allegations against coach Wattley, coach McLeod and the other coaches and only further shows how ridiculous and outrageous it was for these excellent coaches to be terminated...based on a rushed and flawed investigation."