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Justin Bethel says flag debate in South Carolina hits close to home

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Cardinals CB Justin Bethel, a South Carolina native, supports the state's move to take down the Confederate flag for the capitol. AP Photo/David Seelig

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Arizona Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel is a South Carolina native. He was born in Sumter and moved to Columbia as a child.

Bethel, who is black, supports the state’s move to take down the Confederate flag, which has faced renewed scrutiny and calls for removal from state Capitol grounds since the shooting deaths of nine parishioners in a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, two weeks ago.

The attack hit close to home for Bethel, whose father, Chris, is a minister and musician who performs in concerts across the country. A church, he said, is supposed to be a safe haven.

“It’s definitely scary,” Justin Bethel said. “You’re in church and you’re praising the Lord and you’re trying to enjoy that moment with your fellow Christians, and you don’t ever think that’s a place where you’ll be attacked at.

“It definitely could put fear in a lot of people. If I can’t be safe at church, where can I be safe? It can happen anywhere. There’s no place off limits.”

Bethel said for “a lot of African-Americans” the flag elicits feelings of resentment because it represents a war in which one of the primary goals for the Confederacy was to continue slavery.

“It might mean something good or positive for a group of people but when there are so many people who are affected by it in a negative way and it has such a negative connotation toward a group of people, really what’s the point in keeping it up?” Bethel asked.

“It’s really dividing a state into putting people against each other. So, at this point, with the shooting in Charleston, it’s definitely time to come together and see from everybody’s point of view and see that there are so many people it’s affecting in a negative way that it should be taken down.”

Cardinals kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who is white and grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, about 200 miles from Charleston, agrees with his teammate.

“The actions that are being taken now, I strongly agree with,” Catanzaro said. “What once was a flag representing Southern pride and heritage has now become a symbol of pure hate.

“I think the actions that are taken by [South Carolina Gov.] Nikki Haley and actually many other states -- Alabama and Virginia are taking the Confederate flag off their license plate -- I believe those actions are going in the right direction. I’m all for it.”

In 2014, there were 55 NFL players who had attended high school in South Carolina, according to ESPN Stats & Information, including five Cardinals: Bethel, Catanzaro, running back Andre Ellington, wide receiver Jaron Brown and linebacker John Abraham.

Catanzaro said he was in “utter shock” when he heard about the June 18 tragedy.

“It’s just a really, really sad representation of what’s really a great city and a great state,” Catanzaro said. “I just hate it for our state and for our people. It just makes me really sad.”

Bethel said the attack didn’t set the country back because racism had never really gone away.

“It just happened to be shown on that big of a scale,” Bethel said. “It’s been there but it hasn’t come out to where [everyone] knew about it. It was under the radar and stuff has been happening but not to that extent.”

Bethel, 25, said his experiences with racism haven’t been “super serious.” But he’s seen it throughout his life -- including seeing the Confederate flag up at the state Capitol.

“It’s something that, as a state, we have to come together and support each other and realize that it still is a problem and there are people out there that are like that,” Bethel said. “They have a lot of animosity toward people of color and I feel like the only way we’re going to stop that as a country, as a state, as individuals is awareness and raising our kids to not see people for color, not raise them to think if you see a black guy he might rob you or things like that.

“Start by raising our kids to not judge people, not to stereotype people as a group. ... It takes time. We’ve come a long way from where we used to be, but it’s still not where it needs to be. It takes time and each generation can be the generation that progresses us forward and changes the outlook that people have on society and individuals in our society.”