In March, Jamal Speaks, a Ballou STAY Opportunity Academy student and Ballou Knights running back living on friends’ couches, verified his residency. Months later, at the beginning of the new school year, the District of Columbia State Athletic Association (DCSAA) and Ballou’s athletic director cleared him to play varsity football.
However, Ballou Senior High School Principal Willie Jackson, for reasons that have yet to be determined, benched Speaks shortly before last Saturday’s home game against Anacostia Senior High School in Southeast. After a player protest that delayed the matchup for nearly an hour, the young man opted to watch from the sidelines as his teammates defeated their rival 48-0.
“I was happy for [my teammates] but hurt because I wanted to be out there with them,” Jamal told The Washington Informer on Tuesday as he reflected on his recent experience.
Jamal, who says he’s received an offer from Temple University in Philadelphia, attended Ballou as a freshman in 2015 where he played varsity football for two seasons before loss of residency prevented him from continuing his education.
In March, after a year out of school, Speaks enrolled in Ballou STAY, a separate program on the same Southeast campus without a football team of its own. He’s expected to graduate early.
Though he had the option of playing for any varsity team in the city, per DCSAA regulations concerning students at D.C. schools without athletic programs, the running back said he chose to finish his high school career with the Ballou Knights.
“Ballou’s home. That’s where I started and that’s where I want to finish,” he said. “I’ve been a running back since a youngin.’ I started off blocking, ran a ball in scrimmage and blew up as a running back. Football is my way out and it’s what I love to do.”
Minutes after players walked on Ballou’s field Saturday evening, administrators told Jamal he couldn’t play against Anacostia. His teammates then gathered outside of Jackson’s office, demanding answers and refusing to play without their teammate.
Forty-five minutes into their peaceful protest, Jamal encouraged his fellow Ballou Knights to compete without him, citing concerns about seniors who needed footage for athletic scholarships.
Since Saturday, community members, including Jamal’s mentor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Jackson has yet to fully explain his decision to pull the youth.
Jamal’s mentor, DCPS staff member, says Jackson spoke with Ward 8 Council member Trayon White and DCSAA Executive Director Clark Ray on Saturday after ignoring members of the football team for 20 minutes as they knocked on Jackson’s door.
“We have yet to get an answer to the question of why [he doesn’t want Jamal to play],” Jamal’s mentor said, recounting what he described as Jackson’s efforts since the beginning of the school year to paint Speaks as an outsider who’s taking slots on the team from traditional Ballou students.
“He knew of Jamal long before this happened,” he said. “He met the players at the beginning of the yea, and knew Jamal was on the roster to play. Now all of a sudden, he’s making phone calls to the coach, telling him, ‘It’s my school. It’s my rules.'”
Jackson wasn’t available for comment, according to an email send from a DCPS official on Tuesday. However, representatives say their office has looked into the matter, confirming receipt of documentation from DCSAA about Jamal’s eligibility and expressing a commitment to athletic integrity and fidelity to residency rules.
The 2017 Homeless Youth Census counted more than 1,000 homeless youth in the District, including teenagers and adult adolescents with inconsistent housing. Federal legislation passed in 2001 requires school districts to provide homeless youth, including those living in shelters, temporary homes, or in the streets, with the appropriate education.
White, who said he has discussed Jamal’s circumstances with Jackson, Ray, interim Chancellor Amanda Alexander and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, weighed in on the matter, releasing a statement on Monday asking that Jamal receive the support needed to flourish as a student-athlete.
“We live in this community and see individuals going through difficult circumstances every day,” White’s statement read. In the same press release, the Ward 8 council member revealed his intentions to help Jamal secure housing.
“This young man has been through enough,” White’s statement continued. “We need to make sure he graduates and assist him in securing a college scholarship. This kind of opportunity will change the trajectory of this young man’s condition by immediately providing him with housing, food, positive extracurricular activities and college education.”