TOWNSHIP, Ohio (AP) – An Ohio high school football player who claims coaches forced him to eat a pizza covered in pepperoni grease in violation of his religious beliefs is suing his former district and ousted coaches.
The former Canton McKinley high school athlete and his parents filed a federal civil rights lawsuit this week, claiming millions of dollars in damages and alleging violations of his religious freedom and constitutional rights.
Athlete says in lawsuit coaches were told he did not eat pork or pork residue as a member of the Hebrew Israelite religious faith, but ordered him to eat pizza as punishment for missing an off-season practice – and indicated his place on the squad was in danger if he didn’t.
Coaches say the player chose to take the pepperoni out and eat the pizza rather than an alternative food. They didn’t know it violated his religious beliefs, according to a defamation case they previously filed against the teenager’s father, his lawyer and school officials.
A lawyer representing most of the coaches, Peter Pattakos, told Cantonese newspaper The Repository that they had statements from more than a dozen eyewitnesses that the family’s allegations were false.
Canton City School District Superintendent Jeff Talbert said in a written statement that the claims in the family’s lawsuit are unfounded and the school board will deal with them through court proceedings, the newspaper reported.
The district suspended several coaches after the allegations. The board of directors subsequently voted not to renew the coaching contracts for four coaches and ruled three other assistant coaches ineligible for future coaching positions.
The now 18-year-old student was transferred to another neighborhood after facing “threats and ridicule” from his teammates and the public over the situation, according to his lawsuit.