How a Football Game Became a Racial Scrimmage

Two Powerhouses -- One From D.C., One From Md. -- Feel Wronged by Allegations of On-Field Epithets

Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, September 27, 2008; Page B01

CUMBERLAND, Md. -- In the third quarter of a game against Fort Hill High School, a tearful defensive end from Dunbar High threw his helmet to the ground and kicked it. Suddenly, a Friday night encounter that had been all about football was all about race.

Arranged as a long-distance matchup of two football powers, the Sept. 19 game pitted a black team from the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington against a mostly white team from rural western Maryland.

Leading the Sentinels 14-8, the visiting Crimson Tide walked out of Greenway Avenue Stadium as the coach contended that his players had been targets of racial taunts. The home team, which could end up winning by forfeit, denied the accusations.

In subsequent interviews, four Dunbar players and the father of a fifth have said that the team was subjected to a barrage of racial epithets that night -- principally the N-word -- uttered by Fort Hill players as they brushed past on the field, faced off at the line of scrimmage or picked themselves up from a pileup. Some of the players and their families said it was the first time they had heard the word uttered in hate.

"It was kind of a shock to him," said Richard Hughes II, father of defensive end Richard Hughes III. "Just never had anything like that happen before." His son's flash of temper on the sidelines drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty, the first of three 15-yard penalties assessed against Dunbar as the game unraveled.

Players and coaches from Fort Hill denied hearing any racial epithet on the field. There is only one account on the Fort Hill side of a racially offensive comment from the stands.

Referee Robert M. Broadwater said afterward that he and other game officials heard no "inappropriate language." But Broadwater wrote: "There is a lot of close contact between players, so a lot of conversation can take place that is not heard by any of the officials."

A civil rights investigation is underway in the Maryland attorney general's office. Interviews with coaches, players, parents and supporters of both teams suggest that the damage has been done. Dunbar players said they suffered a serious indignity. Fort Hill students said they were slandered.

This is the second allegation of racism in a year for Fort Hill, whose principal banned displays of the Confederate flag in March after a black family reported being chased from the school by racial intimidation. Civil rights advocates see an ugly pattern. Defenders of Fort Hill say the Dunbar team and its coach, Craig Jefferies, exploited the stain left on the school by the Confederate flag incident.

"We're at a major disadvantage here," said Max Green, a senior and Fort Hill campus leader. "There's nothing we can do to take back what [Jefferies] said."

Fort Hill and Dunbar have more in common than good football teams. Both schools have had to fight for respect.

Fort Hill, built in 1936 near a Civil War breastworks, is on the less-affluent side of this Allegany County town. The better-off in Cumberland, population 22,000, attend rival Allegany High School. Fort Hill is predominantly white, with about 60 black students out of more than 1,000. Two-fifths of its students come from families poor enough to qualify for federal meal subsidies. SAT scores fall nearly 100 points below the national average.

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