Community members came together Tuesday night in support of Rock Island High School’s boys soccer team. The team had a run-in with racism last week when a charter bus driver wouldn’t let some of the athletes board his bus with a Mexican flag.
When news of the incident spread, one community member on Facebook invited anyone who could to attend the team's next home game on Tuesday against United Township High School, and to bring flags from all over the world to show support.
Rocky fans did not disappoint. Flags could be seen scattered throughout the bleachers — on T-shirts, waving from poles, draped over shoulders and sitting across laps. Every time cheers were raised, so were the flags.
On the side of the field, athletes waiting to play held flags in support of their teammates, and a flag was even visible among the small group of spectators on the UT side of the bleachers.
The most common flag was the flag of Mexico, but there were also flags representing Guatemala, Ireland, Burundi and other countries.
"Just to see the community like this is awesome," said Pablo Beltran, a spectator at the game, who stood with friends holding both a Mexican flag and flag of Rock Island High School. "It's 2021 and we're still experiencing racism. ... If we can come together to say we can end this, that's something we want to see around the world."
The incident that inspired Tuesday night’s flag display happened on Thursday, Sept. 16, which is Mexican Independence Day.
The Rocky boys soccer team was supposed to take a charter bus to an out-of-town soccer game against Dunlap that day, but the bus driver, who has since been fired, refused entry to students carrying the flag of Mexico in celebration of Mexican Independence Day.
The driver worked for Tri-State Travel, a bus company that has contracted with the Rock Island-Milan School District for several years, according to Andrew Hillard, the company's president.
The rest of the team got off the bus in support of their teammates and wouldn't get back on, according to a letter to parents from Superintendent Reginald Lawrence of the Rock Island-Milan School District. The team missed its game, which had to be rescheduled.
Hillard said after an internal investigation, which involved reviewing video footage of the incident, the bus driver involved has been terminated, effective immediately.
"We have zero tolerance for this type of behavior," Hillard said. "It was something that should have never happened."
Hillard also said as president of Tri-State Travel he will write a personal apology letter to the team and will meet with them in-person once a time can be scheduled. Tri-State Travel will also donate a bus for the team's next away game and throw them a pizza party.
Lawrence, the district superintendent, commended the team in his letter to parents.
"With all that transpired, our RIHS soccer team and the head coach conducted themselves with respect and dignity. Our students should not have to experience this sort of bias and racism," Superintendent Lawrence said. "The Rock Island-Milan School District is a school district of many nations, and we are here to support our students. ... Racism is counterproductive to our values, and we need to do everything in our power to end it."