Before each game this spring, a member of Brentsville District High School's baseball team would take a bat from the dugout, walk out to the on-deck circle and sketch a symbol in the dirt. According to one player, who cited the team's Virginia Group A championship as evidence, the symbol brought the Tigers good luck.
It should have brought them great shame.
The players for Brentsville, a small school in rural Nokesville, chose an emblem that depicts a racist joke -- and includes a Ku Klux Klan logo -- to represent their team. The tradition started four seasons ago, after white players for Brentsville (which fielded an all-white team this season) argued with black players on the team from Clarke County High School. According to Wes Hugh, a member of the Brentsville team at the time, one of his teammates returned to the dugout that day and drew the symbol, which is called "The Well." He then suggested that they throw a black opponent into its depths.
The symbol drawn that day resembled a racist pictorial riddle that has existed for years. A circle is drawn with an x' inside -- that image resembles the Cross Wheel logo used by the Klan -- and then two dots are placed inside each quadrant. The quadrants are supposed to resemble Klan hoods, the dots eyes, and the overall picture is that of four Klansmen staring down into a deep hole.
The hole is a well -- hence the nickname -- and the riddle (edited to omit some offensive language) goes as follows:
Q: "What is this?"
A: "The last thing a black person sees when he's falling down a well."
Apparently, the players found the joke funny, and, for four seasons, no one bothered to suggest otherwise. The head coach, Dave Przybocki, is claiming ignorance -- he told the Potomac News that he did not understand the symbol's meaning. It's rather astounding, though, that he watched it drawn every game and never bothered to find out what it meant. An assistant coach, Matt Ondrof, did know about the racist connotations -- he admitted as much to the Potomac News -- and did nothing.
The players' intentions are more complicated. In Greenwich, Conn., prejudice and ignorance clearly played a role in the actions of four football players, who conspired to spell out a racial slur, coupled with a threat, beneath their photos in the yearbook published this spring. And some Brentsville players -- at the very least, those who initiated the practice four years ago -- did understand, and endorse, the racist message inherent in the symbol. But others, teammates have said, did not know the symbol had a racist meaning.
Perhaps most abhorrent, though, is that many players did know the meaning of the symbol -- according to several team members -- yet went along with its use, steadfast in the belief that it was simply a good luck charm, and would not hurt anyone. Those players don't seem to understand what it would have been like for a black player to step into the on-deck circle, see that logo, and comprehend its meaning. They don't seem to understand -- or perhaps care -- that, in some circles, the logo is meant to evoke feelings of humiliation and fear.
"It was about superstition," Brandon Cornwell, a member of the team, told a Post reporter early last week. "Not racism."
Cornwell is not alone in his ignorance. In Atlanta, there are plans to fly the Georgia state flag -- with its "stars and bars" Confederate logo -- during the Olympics, which open one year from this coming Wednesday. Proponents of the flag call the logo a tribute to their ancestors, who fought in the Civil War. They consider it no more than a symbol of their Southern heritage.
Those people are conveniently forgetting -- or, in many cases, dismissing -- the fact that their cherished symbol represents something else altogether to most of the African Americans who will participate in, or attend, the 1996 Olympics. To them, the Confederate logo can be a painful reminder of the horrific injustices done to their ancestors. To them, and many others, it is no more than a symbol of slavery.
The Anti-Defamation League in Washington has sent a letter to the principal of Brentsville District High School, asking that the players receive diversity training. The ADL is right -- if nothing else, the players should no longer be allowed to use ignorance as an excuse.
Przybocki now has pledged to end the practice, and has issued an apology, but his suitability as a high school coach certainly needs to be questioned. Edward L. Kelly, the Prince William school superintendent, quickly denounced the practice, and has promised a full investigation into the matter. His response is to be commended.
Still, it remains a sad testament to the Brentsville baseball program, and the school system, and even the Nokesville community that for four years, no one noticed what was going on at Brentsville baseball games -- at least not someone who had the sense to stop it.
The stories of scandal and corruption in professional and college athletics no longer shock anyone. When the University of Maryland was slapped with yet another set of penalties by the NCAA last week, no one should have been surprised, save perhaps for Scott Milanovich, who was slapped with a more severe penalty than he had expected.
And it's naive to believe that the same kinds of problems don't trickle down to the high school level. The goal of a high school baseball program should be to foster a sense of teamwork, of respect for the competition, of good sportsmanship. That's not necessarily the case any longer. Certainly not in Nokesville.
Oh, the Brentsville players understand the concept of teamwork -- across four seasons, not one thought to break with the crowd and condemn the use of their racist "good-luck" symbol. As for the rest of it though, Brentsville has failed, and failed badly. The Tigers may have won the state title this season, but winners they're not.