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Racial Prejudice Pops Up in an Arena Normally Free of It

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By Michael Wilbon
Friday, September 26, 2008

Back when black and white kids couldn't do anything else together, when laws ordered them to be segregated, when they couldn't encounter one another anywhere else, they would find common ground playing sports together -- almost always without incident. The playgrounds, courts and fields have been a place, sometimes the only place, where bigotry simply hasn't been welcome.

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That's what makes this incident involving the football players from Dunbar High and Fort Hill in Cumberland, Md., so disturbing. We've grown accustomed to fans chanting vile things from the stands. We've seen the ugly side of parents and administrators. We've seen club executives lie through their teeth about hiring the most qualified people to fill coaching vacancies. But the games themselves are as close as this society comes to a true meritocracy. What happens on the field of play largely has been immune to the burden of race in this country. As the saying goes, players play.

Even so, I applaud Dunbar Coach Craig Jefferies for pulling his team off the field. I believe that he believes his players' reaction was to start swinging, and he felt his first mission as a coach of high school kids was to avoid a brawl. "It's something," the coach said in a conversation the other night, "that would follow those kids the rest of their lives, and I had to do what I could to prevent that."

You think Jefferies is exaggerating? What do you think followed Allen Iverson around for years?

Some Americans might not be ready to cast a vote for a black president, but most have moved past the angst of a great black golfer or a white kid taking his game to a playground in the 'hood. If you can play, people let you, just about regardless of color. So it's stunning to hear allegations from Dunbar players that their opponents across the line from them, during a football game, used racial slurs. Yes, the N-word is said to have been uttered and more than once.

Fort Hill's reaction makes this whole episode as perplexing as it is ugly. Its players say it simply didn't happen, that there were no such slurs. Coach Todd Appel has said everything you could possibly want to hear from a man whose players have been accused of such. Appel seems especially sensitive and in tune with what such an incident could mean, and he made it clear in public comments how intolerant he would be of such hateful insults. Beyond that, though, denial has been the name of the game.

Even with investigations being conducted, we might never know exactly what was said and by whom. But I don't believe for a second that nothing happened. I don't buy for a moment that the Dunbar kids just made it up. It's not like the Dunbar players were encountering white kids on a football field for the first time.

Dunbar is the gold standard when it comes to public high school football in the District and, as such, its team plays everywhere. It plays against white kids all the time, in West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania. And there never have been similar allegations we know of. Jefferies said he's aware that some people doubt that his players are telling the truth, and he added that he welcomes reporters talking to his players once the investigations are complete.

Jefferies added: "I was amazed when I talked to them. Even the kids who aren't particularly eloquent said things I knew they couldn't make up. It was like trash-talking . . . combined with racial slurs. Anybody who doubts them . . . I hope they get a chance to talk to my kids, to see the look in their faces and hear the disgust in their voices."

Nobody's objective when it comes to racial issues. We all have our baggage. I know the look and the disgust Jefferies refers to because I've been called the N-word to my face by people who vehemently and repeatedly denied doing so.

This doesn't mean that a player on Fort Hill, even if he said such a thing, is a bigot. He could have resorted to the wrong means of getting under an opponent's skin. He could have heard one too many hip-hop songs from one of his favorite artists and thought it was just fine to use that word. He could have heard it at home and uttered it without thinking, or joined in, thinking it was all part of trash-talk, then denied it out of sheer embarrassment.

After all, how many people do we hear come clean and say: "Yep, I said it. I shouldn't have done it, but I did." Race still is America's greatest burden, yet you don't hear anybody say, "Sure, I'm a bigot." You don't even hear, "Maybe I need to take a second look at my behavior."

What you hear is: "Not me. I would never do such a thing."

When your school has tensions involving the Confederate flag -- last spring, the principal banned the wearing or displaying of it at school after racial tensions surfaced -- it's difficult for anybody looking in from the outside to extend the benefit of the doubt. An environment there, even if very limited and involving a tiny number of students, leads me to dismiss the notion that nothing was said.

Thing is, the Dunbar and Fort Hill players themselves probably could work through this issue if the right people got them together. They're too young to be on a road to prejudice and hate, and competing with and against kids who don't look like them is the absolute answer to the problem.

Babe Ruth was prevented from playing with black players in the major leagues, but he often barnstormed in the offseason with Negro League players. Billy Packer wasn't allowed, officially, to play against black players when he was in high school and college, but he often went looking for the best black players to watch or play against -- in secret. Pat Riley's all-white Kentucky team lost the historic NCAA championship game in 1966 to all-black Texas Western in an outcome a whole lot of southern folks, and that includes people in Maryland and Virginia, didn't like.

The Texas Western players hold a reunion every so often to celebrate that championship. And there's at least one outsider they invite all the time, a man who gets choked up at the notion they would extend themselves to him in such a way.

Riley.


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