The father even claimed to Cal Coast News that a black security guard present at the match had encouraged him to wear more makeup.
But elsewhere a storm was brewing.
Barely a week later, the boy and his parents were hauled into the Muirlands Middle School in La Joila by its principal Jeff Luna.
Following the meeting, the parents were told the child had been suspended for two days, and banned from all future athletic events.
A note from the meeting said J.A. “painted his face black at a football game”, an action that was deemed by Luna and the school as an “offensive comment, intent to harm”.
Luna also claimed the face paint was offensive to the school, which has a “largely Black” student base.
FIRE took on the family complaint, filing a note to the principal that detailed how the child’s First Amendment right had been violated and demanding a reversal of its decision.
It said: “As the First Amendment protects J.A.’s non-disruptive expression of team spirit via a style commonly used by athletes and fans – notwithstanding your inaccurate description of it as ‘blackface’ – FIRE calls on the school to remove the infraction from J.A.’s disciplinary record and lift the ban on his attendance at future athletic events.”
Aaron Terr, FIRE’s director of public advocacy, said the child’s “appearance emulated the style of eye black worn by many athletes,” adding that “such use of eye black began as a way to reduce glare during games, but long ago evolved into ‘miniature billboards for personal messages and war-paint slatherings’”.
He also noted that J.A. wore the face paint “throughout the game without incident”.
He concluded: “In the seminal student speech case Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court held the First Amendment protected public school students’ right to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War,” he said.
“The Court made clear school officials cannot restrict student speech based on speculative ‘undifferentiated fear’ that it will cause disruption or feelings or unpleasantness or discomfort among the student body.
“Rather Tinker requires evidence that the speech has or will ‘materially and substantially disrupt the work and discipline of the school.’
“There is no evidence J.A.’s face paint caused a disruption – let alone a material and substantial one – at the football game or at school afterward.”
After it emerged the school would not overturn its decision, FIRE sent the case on to the San Diego Unified School District on Monday.