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Protests Rise After Officer in Tamir Rice Shooting Plays on Football Team

When the new player appeared on the semipro football team made up of emergency workers, he simply went by Tim or Timmy. He was noticeably bad …

When the new player appeared on the semipro football team made up of emergency workers, he simply went by Tim or Timmy. He was noticeably bad at football, said Randy Knight, a lineman on the team, who took Tim under his wing and taught him the basics: assuming a three-point stance, “firing off” the line, proper hand placement at the line of scrimmage.

They did not interact much off the field, Knight said, but he played alongside Tim, who mostly kept to himself, without incident for more than two seasons.

But in early 2019, a fellow semipro football player questioned why Knight was playing for the Cleveland Warriors.

“They’re racist,” the player said of the Warriors, according to Knight. “The guy that killed Tamir Rice is on that team.”

Tamir was the 12-year-old Black boy fatally shot by a white Cleveland police officer in 2014. Knight searched for information about Tamir’s killer on Google, and up popped images of the man he knew as Timmy — Timothy Loehmann.

“I became irate,” said Knight, 32, a former corrections officer who is Black.

Loehmann’s involvement with the team became public last week in a report by a local television station. Knight led a protest at the Warriors’ practice facility on Saturday, saying that the team’s management had lied to him by allowing Loehmann, who was fired from the police force in 2017 but not criminally charged in the shooting, to continue to play with the team. Activists and supporters of Tamir’s family have since expressed outrage over the former officer’s presence on the team, not least because it is in the National Public Safety Football League, which was originally started for law enforcement.

“I think it’s careless and irresponsible for them to allow him to play,” Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “His career is over as a police officer in the state of Ohio as far as I’m concerned. It’s just ridiculous.”

The league requires players to be active-duty emergency responders.Bill Sofranko, the coach of the Warriors, said that although Loehmann was fired in 2017, the team allowed him to continue to play while his arbitration appeal was pending and that Loehmann was removed from the team once he lost that appeal — in late 2019, after the most recent season was over. (The league, a 20-team group that began play in 1997, did not play last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.)

Sofranko, who is white, said that he had allowed Loehmann to continue to practice with the team and that, contrary to what Knight claimed, he had never hidden the former officer’s identity.

Loehmann is still trying to regain his job as a Cleveland police officer — he is currently appealing his firing in state court. His lawyer, Henry Hilow, said it was unfair for people to criticize Loehmann for being on the football team.

“Every time he does something now in his life, there’s going to be someone picketing?” Hilow asked. “There’s never been criminal charges against him. Whether people agree or disagree, that’s the reality of the situation.”

A grand jury in Cuyahoga County declined in 2015 to charge Loehmann in the shooting of Tamir, and in late December, the Justice Department announced that it was closing its investigation into the case without filing charges.

Sofranko, 65, said that Loehmann had joined the team in 2017 the way most players do — he just showed up one day. He did not know about Loehmann’s involvement in the Tamir shooting, Sofranko said, until the former officer told him at breakfast after practice one morning. Learning that, Sofranko said, never made him question whether Loehmann should be on the team.

“Why should I have?” Sofranko said.

One former player, who is Black and now serves as an assistant coach, said that he was initially uncomfortable when learning that Loehmann had killed Tamir, but that then he talked to the former officer about it.

“I got to know Tim personally,” said the former player, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Lebo. “He was remorseful. He was apologetic.”

Sofranko said Knight had never lodged any objection to Loehmann’s presence on the team until about two weeks ago, when Sofranko informed Knight that he was being kicked off the team because he had left the Ohio corrections department and was no longer eligible to play in the league.

“He’s using this Tamir Rice, this Black-white thing to support his anger and vengeance,” Sofranko said. “Every Black person on the team supports Tim Loehmann.”

Knight forcefully denied that. He said that the coaching staff seemed to hide Loehmann’s full identity — that he was not introduced to the full team the way most other players are.

Loehmann was circumspect with him once, Knight said. When Loehmann’s suspension from the police force came up during a conversation, Loehmann said that it was due to a technicality with his résumé and that he would soon have his job back, Knight recalled.

Loehmann was indeed fired because he lied on his résumé, but Knight said he felt that he should have been more forthcoming about the Tamir shooting.

But as soon as he found out who Loehmann was, Knight said, he reached out to several members of the team’s management, including Sofranko, to complain. Knight provided screenshots of several text messages sent to a team board member in March 2019 in which he expressed concern about Loehmann’s presence on the team.

“How in the hell did this guy get on the team?” Knight said he asked the team’s management. “How did we allow this to happen?”

Management assured him several times that Loehmann would no longer be on the team, Knight said. But each time Knight showed up to games, Loehmann was there. It all blew up before the championship game in 2019 in Los Angeles.

The team paid everyone’s way there, in part with a $20,000 contribution from Dee Haslam, an owner of the Cleveland Browns, according to Sofranko. A Browns spokesman said it was a one-time contribution. The Haslam family was unaware that Loehmann was on the team at the time, he said, and does not plan to make any further donations.

The night before the game, Knight said, he argued with several teammates about the fact that Loehmann had made the trip, but he eventually decided to play so as not to let down the team. The Warriors lost to the Los Angeles Grizzlies, 24-0.

Knight said he decided to return this year after again receiving assurances that Loehmann would no longer be with the team. But Loehmann was at the practice facility in early January. Before he could object, Knight said, Sofranko told him that he was off the team for being disruptive.

“Why is he here?” Knight said he asked Sofranko, referring to Loehmann. “So you all mad at me because I spoke out?”

Knight returned to practice two weeks later, this time as a protester. The police were called to escort the protesters out of the practice facility.

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