PORTLAND, Ore. – The Jefferson High School football team starts almost every game with a 15-yard penalty. And the home fans love it.
The referees drop the yellow flag because the team performs the dance known as a haka before each game. The haka finds its roots in New Zealand with the Maori people, and found a wider stage with the New Zealand rugby team. The University of Hawaii football team does the haka (it, too, has penalized for the performance) and the aggressive moves have gained momentum via YouTube and other outlets.
The Jefferson High version began with the team's seven students from Tonga, a South Pacific kingdom between New Zealand and Hawaii. Players say it took only a few days to get the moves right, but weeks to learn the Maori words that are chanted.
"We are defending our land," Tongan player Leni Feaomoeata, 15, told The Oregonian. "Jefferson has the reputation for losing, being dismissed. We wanted to defend our school, to show we have heart."
The players, the cheerleaders and other Jefferson students have rallied around the dance. But opposing coaches complained to Jefferson's athletic director, and the Oregon School Activities Association decided the ritual amounted to taunting. It said the players must do the dance with their backs to the opposing team or face a 15-yard penalty at the start of each game.
"The problem wasn't with the ritual," said Brad Garrett, OSAA assistant executive director. "The problem was they performed it while directing it at the other team. By federation rule, that is taunting. It's about the location."
Jefferson coach Anthony Stoudamire delivered the news to his players several weeks ago and told the kids they had to do the haka the way the state association ordered.
The team won its next game, but didn't play its best. So the coach let the team take a vote. And they decided to start taking the penalty.
"I saw how much it meant to them," Stoudamire said. "It got them pumped up, enthusiastic. That's something, as a coach, I couldn't take away from them."