Thin blue line logo stirs controversy for Worthington lacrosse club
Multiple parents have chosen to remove their children from the team over its continued use of the symbol
When Ray and Matt Lees arrived in Michigan for a lacrosse tournament last summer, 10-29, the Worthington-based club for which their son played, had not yet distributed the team jerseys to players.
“And so when we came to the tournament, we got the uniform that day, and we didn’t know the blue line logo was going to be on the front of it. And that happened probably three weeks after the George Floyd murder,” said Matt Lees, who, along with Ray, decided to remove their son from the team following the season. “[The logo] was a surprise to us, and we weren’t comfortable with it, though I do want to say it wasn’t the sole reason we withdrew him from the league. But it was definitely part of the reason.”
The Lees aren’t the only parents to end their association with the team due to the symbol, either. In April, Veena Gopalakrishna withdrew her son from the team over its continued use of the logo, as did another parent who spoke anonymously with Alive.
“[The logo] was not an issue for me until last year, for obvious reasons, with the political climate and the whole Black lives matter, blue lives matter explosion, for lack of a better word,” said the parent, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the family’s fears of community backlash. “That’s when it was like, ‘OK, what message is the team really trying to send? Because [the symbol] has nothing to do with lacrosse. … It has nothing to do with bringing together or developing these young boys.”
While no one associated with 10-29 would take part in a phone interview, the club did send a series of statements in reply to emailed questions from Alive.
“The thin blue line logo and what it stands for — supporting law enforcement and honoring those officers who’ve made the ultimate sacrifice and given their lives for their community — has been a part of our team since the beginning,” wrote the team leaders, who founded the nonprofit lacrosse club in July 2016 to honor Columbus SWAT officer Steve Smith, who was killed in the line of duty in April of that year. (The name 10-29 is adopted from the police code for a juvenile complaint.)
In recent years, however, the thin blue line has taken on a different meaning in certain circles, with criticisms that the image has come to symbolize white supremacy, leading some police departments to ban officers from displaying it while on duty.
“I’ve been in law enforcement for almost 30 years, and, I’ll be honest with you, I initially thought it was a good thing to have a flag that was supposed to represent support for [the profession],” said Anthony Wilson, a former CPD sergeant and Westerville assistant chief of police, in a May interview with Alive. “But then I saw that flag flying in Charlottesville [during the 2017 Unite the Right rally]. … And I watched the insurrection [on Jan. 6] and I saw people carry that flag up the steps of the Capitol. And that’s when I realized it no longer represented what I believed it to represent.”
“Whether or not it was the intent at the beginning, the [thin blue line] symbol is being used by groups that oppose social justice and police reform,” said Matt Lees, whose son was one of two Black players on 10-29 last season. “I feel like it’s become divisive.”
Gopalakrishna, whose son joined 10-29 following late-summer tryouts in 2019, said that she started to grow increasingly uncomfortable with the thin blue line and its association with the club following the social justice protests that erupted nationwide in May 2020 following the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, a time during which the image could often be spotted on flags flown in opposition to the growing Black lives matter movement.
As a result, Gopalakrishna said she started to raise concerns with team officials last summer. At the time, Gopalakrishna said, club leaders assured her that 10-29 would adopt an alternate logo modeled on the Ohio state flag for the 2021 season, a promise that fell through when the group reconvened for a board meeting early this spring.
“I attended the board meeting in either March or April, and they were choosing the logo for the jersey, and it was clear they were still using the blue line imagery,” Gopalakrishna said. “And before I could speak up at the meeting, the head coach (Greg Parini) said, ‘Why aren’t we using the new logo?’ because it had been available to order on the team store all winter. … And one of the founders who was there said, ‘It’s not a new logo. It’s a variant, and it will be available on certain items but it’s not our primary logo.’ … And I spoke up and said, ‘You know, these are young men that are 12 to 14 yearsold, and we’re now asking them to defend this symbol that, as of last summer, means a lot more, especially in Columbus, Ohio. And I don’t think it’s right.’”
Following the meeting, Gopalakrishna sent a letter to board members on April 15, a copy of which was provided to Alive.
“Prior to recent years, I understand that the ‘thin blue line’ represented the division between the good guys (police officers) and those that would cause chaos and crime in our nation. It was a symbol many could be proud of, with good reason,” Gopalakrishna wrote. “However, in recent years, the ‘thin blue line’ has been hijacked by those that stand for division, racism, and hatred. … Just because I wish we could use a symbol for what it was originally meant to stand for does NOT mean it does not carry the meaning that has developed.”
In response, 10-29 issued a letter to Gopalakrishna, a copy of which was provided to Alive. In the letter, which was signed by four board members, the team defended its continued use of the symbol, writing that “the hijacking of imagery is something that is completely out of our control.”
In the email to Alive, 10-29 described the symbol as an integral part of its mission to instill “values in our players that will last a lifetime.” “Part of those values is understanding that although a few people in the world may try to corrupt something good and use it for their own misguided purposes, it doesn’t change the original meaning,” the team wrote.
The parents interviewed spoke fondly of the team’s larger mission, with the Lees singling out the work put in by head coach Parini, who is also a lieutenant with the Columbus Division of Police, and Gopalakrishna praising the club’s push to engage the players in community service.
“They’re trying to instill … these great character traits in the young men both on and off the field,” Gopalakrishna said. “So, in my opinion, had they been able to see how this logo affected the greater community, and especially the community of color in Worthington, which isn’t huge but is present, I would have kept my child on the team.”
“It’s not an attack against the people leading the organization, or the people who have stayed with it,” Matt Lees said. “We think the use of the symbol is unnecessary and it doesn’t attract diversity to the game. And I don’t think it’s the responsibility of 12- and 14-year-olds to have to carry that [burden].”
The Lees returned to the importance of diversifying the sport at several points in conversation, reiterating that the team’s inflexibility in regards to the logo hurt everyone on the team by creating another potential barrier for players of color who might have otherwise been interested in the sport of lacrosse, in general, and in particular playing for the 10-29 club.
“I think an unfortunate part of this, really, is it does drive people of color away from the sport, and Worthington lacrosse is not a diverse sport,” Matt Lees said. “And I do think that white kids and Black kids both lose out because of that.”