CANTON, Ohio – A former Ohio high school football player is suing his school district and former coaches, claiming they forced him to eat a pepperoni pizza against his religious beliefs after missing a voluntary practice.
The student, now 18, filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Akron in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division, against the Canton City School District and his former coaches. The student and his parents, who are not identified by name in the lawsuit, claim their civil rights were violated when he missed a weightlifting session on May 24 and was forced to eat the pizza, The Repository of Canton reported.
The teen, referred to as “K.W.” in the lawsuit, and his family are Hebrew Israelite, meaning they do not consume port, WOIO-TV reported.
According to the lawsuit, the family is seeking $10.1 million in compensatory damages and $3.4 million in punitive damages, in addition to “injunctive relief, emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, attorney fees, costs and any other legal or equitable relief as this honorable court deems fair and equitable.
Defendants in the lawsuit include the Canton City School District and Canton City School District Board of Education; Superintendent Jeff Talbert; and former McKinley High School coaches Marcus Wattley, Frank McLeod, Zachary Sweat, Romero Harris, Cade Brodie, Tyler Thatcher and Josh Grimsley, The Repository reported.
In June 2021, the Canton City school board unanimously voted not to renew the coaching contract of Wattley, the head coach; assistants Brodie and Thatcher; and McLeod, an assistant baseball coach who had related weight room duties. McLeod, Sweat and Grimsley were declared ineligible for future coaching positions, The Repository reported.
The former player, who is scheduled to graduate from high school in June 2022, now attends a school district more than 100 miles from Canton, according to The Repository.
The allegations in the lawsuit mirror the claims the player’s father, and the family’s attorney, Ed Gilbert, made during a news conference in June. Gilbert had threatened the lawsuit but later said the family was seeking to negotiate a resolution, The Repository reported.
“The central facts in this case are undisputed,” Gilbert said in a news release. “The family has been in intense settlement discussions with the Canton School District. These discussions resulted in a resolution. However, the district’s insurance company has reneged on the settlement, thereby forcing the family to move forward with litigation.
“The affected child has been forced to leave the district due to threats from his teammates and members of the Canton community. The child is mentally devastated.”
According to Gilbert, the player was told that his teammates would be forced to do extra drills if he refused to eat the pizza, and that his position with the team could be compromised, The New York Times reported.
Attorney Peter Pattakos, who represents several of the former coaches, maintained in a statement that the former player’s original claims were false.
“When this story first broke last spring we immediately came forward with evidence — including statements from more than a dozen eyewitnesses — showing that the wild accusations that the coaches forced K.W. to eat pizza against his religion were false and defamatory,” Pattakos said. “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 in July.
“With their efforts to extort a settlement from the district having failed, Ed Gilbert and his clients had little choice but to file this pathetic lawsuit as a defense against the coaches’ defamation claims against them.”
In a statement, Talbert said “The board will address the claims, which it contends are without merit, through the legal process.”