By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008
The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association is investigating allegations that Fort Hill High football players directed racial slurs toward players from the District's Dunbar High during a game Friday night in Cumberland, Md.
Dunbar Coach Craig Jefferies pulled his team off the field midway through the third quarter with the visiting Crimson Tide leading, 14-8, saying yesterday that he was fearful the situation would escalate into violence.
Fort Hill Coach Todd Appel denied the charge that his team taunted Dunbar players with racial epithets. Reached by phone yesterday, Appel said he spoke to several players after the game and they were adamant they did not use any racist terms toward the Dunbar players.
Appel said he asked his tight end, senior Jordan Helmick, a three-year starter and one of six black players on Fort Hill's 38-man roster, if he had heard any slurs, and Helmick replied, "Coach, I swear, nothing like that was going on."
Appel said, "I wouldn't tolerate [racist epithets], and if I heard it, I'd kick [that player] off the team."
Bob Broadwater, the game's referee, said no one on the officiating crew heard any epithets.
"Based on the action on the field, there were no racial slurs that I or any of the other officials heard," said Broadwater, who was reached by phone yesterday. He said Jefferies told him about the alleged slurs about a minute before the coach pulled his team from the field. "I told him, 'If we hear it, we'll penalize them.' "
Jefferies said yesterday that his players told him the alleged slurs were more prevalent than he initially believed. He said his players' reactions, coupled with perceived biases in the officiating, made him believe the situation could have escalated into a fight or something worse. He said leaving the field was the best way to prevent that from happening.
"The worst-case scenario was a fight, which was inevitable at that point," Jefferies said. "You could feel the sense of being uncomfortable in that stadium, and I had to do something proactive. If there was just poor officiating, my guys would have played through it."
Troy Mathieu, athletic director for D.C. Public Schools, stressed the importance of avoiding a violent incident.
"If he doesn't pull them, and they get into an all-out brawl, then video of it gets spread all over America," he said. "You don't want that."
Dunbar's Curtis Robinson, a senior offensive lineman, said: "[Fort Hill players] started [using racial epithets] in the second quarter and it just kept coming from there. . . . I also heard it from the stands, too. [Players] say it under their breath, when they're getting off you when they make a tackle."
Crimson Tide senior wide receiver Deon Long said he did not hear any slurs, but he said a fight seemed possible.
"There was a sense that that could have happened," Long said. "It was getting a little scary, but it just made us want to win even more."
Ned Sparks, MPSSAA's executive director, said he hopes to complete an investigation this week, then make a determination as to whether the game will go down as a Dunbar forfeit or a "no contest."
"The first thing we'll do is get ahold of the officials and coaches and review what happened," Sparks said. "I've heard some horrible stories, but I need to hear some facts first."
Fort Hill principal Steve Lewis was out of town for the weekend, but said he felt confident the game officials would have intervened if they had thought the teams were losing control of themselves.
"I can't believe they thought anything like that was going on," Lewis said, "or they would have stopped the game and gone to administrators for help to control it."
"We left under a crowd of boos," said Jefferies, who added that his team received its $2,500 check from Fort Hill for coming to the game, as part of a negotiated contract.
Said Appel, who is in his first year as Fort Hill's head coach after serving as an assistant the previous 15 seasons: "I'm embarrassed by the whole thing. If there's guilt, I want to take care of it, but if it's not true, I don't want to be falsely accused."