A former basketball player at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith said he was dismissed from the program because the team’s coach would not allow players to wear dreadlocks.

Tyler Williams, a former guard for the Lions who started all 29 games last season and was the team’s second-leading scorer, told the Oklahoman that during his first meeting with new head coach Jim Boone he was told he could not wear his dreadlocks if he wanted to be a part of the team.

UAFS Chancellor Terisa Riley emailed a statement to UAFS students, faculty and staff regarding the incident and said the university is investigating the allegations. Rachel Putman, UAFS’s interim director of public information, told the Oklahoman she expects the investigation to be completed within a few days. Putman said Tuesday the investigation began when the school received the letter from the Williams family.

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“The University of Arkansas-Fort Smith will not tolerate racism or retaliation,” Riley said in the statement Tuesday morning. “We never want a student to leave the university feeling disrespected or devalued, and this situation serves as a powerful reminder that we must continually assess and work to create an inclusive environment that values all members of our community.”

Through a law firm, Boone released a five-page statement on Thursday night which argued that two of Williams’s ex-teammates said he intended to transfer from UAFS before the conversation with the coach, and suggested that Williams was using the accusation in attempt to seek a waiver that would allow him to play immediately at a new school. The statement also accused Williams of editing an audio recording of a conversation with Boone that later became public, and said that Williams was exempted from Boone’s policy about hair length.

Boone, now in his 34th season as a collegiate head coach, joined UAFS in April after seven seasons at Delta State University.

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Williams said Boone eventually made an exception for him, saying he could keep his hair because he is a senior but that he would not recruit players with hair similar to his.

Disturbed by what he had heard, Williams then discussed the meeting with his parents, Reginald and Tiffini. The three of them then met with Boone on Aug. 16.

In that meeting, according to the player, Boone dismissed Williams from the program.

The family sent a letter to the university dated Aug. 19 detailing the meeting, including an audio recording taken by Williams unbeknownst to Boone. (In Arkansas, recording a conversation is legal if the person making the recording is a party to the conversation.)

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According to a transcript of the recording published by the Oklahoman, Williams pressed Boone on his comments from their first meeting, including his statement about not recruiting players with his hair style.

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“It’s not that we don’t recruit them, but we make it very clear that once they get in here [they are] not going to have their hair that way,” Boone says in the recording. “I told you, though, because you were here before me, that I didn’t think it was fair for me to tell you you needed to cut your hair, that I was going to let you have it.”

“It’s not about race. It’s about hair,” Boone said later.

In the meeting, Tiffini Williams brings up a California law banning discrimination of a student or employee wearing their natural hair.

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“I don’t have to live with that. I don’t live in California, so I don’t have to deal with that,” Boone replies.

Toward the end of the conversation, Boone grants Williams his release from the team.

“Listen, I’m not going to go through all of this. I’m not here for that. You need to go somewhere else,” Boone said.

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Boone’s law firm said the full audio includes Williams’s father thanking the coach for allowing the player to transfer.

Images of the letter sent to the university by the Williams family was tweeted by someone claiming to be a UAFS student on Sunday.

“Boone’s dismissal of Tyler from the program alludes to the understanding that UAFS does not allow players with dreadlocks to have the slightest opportunity to become a player on the UAFS Men’s Basketball team,” the letter says. “As Boone states, ‘we do not allow that hair in our program.’ That is an injustice to African American athletes and a major, disappointing stain that UAFS must carry as long as the Men’s Basketball team is under the coaching of Boone.”

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“Styles such as dreadlocks, braids, cornrows and, of course, afros, can’t be disentangled from black culture,” the letter continues. “Boone’s action of policing black hair is a form of pervasive racism and bias.”

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The Williamses aren’t sure how the letter became public, but they are glad this situation is receiving attention.

“When we sent it, we sent it just to the school,” Reginald Williams said. “I started seeing screenshots. I couldn’t tell you how it got out there or who put it out there.”

“I didn’t know the letter had got out, but I’m glad it’s out and people are seeing my story,” Tyler Williams told the Oklahoman. “It shouldn’t be tolerated.”

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“To kick someone off the team just because of their hair, that’s not right,” he said. “I just felt disrespected and devalued after he told me that.”

Williams’s parents told a Houston-based sports show they want Boone removed as coach at UAFS.

Boone’s attorney, Tom Mars, initially released a statement defending the coach’s actions.

“Coach Boone’s attitude about players’ hairstyles is admittedly old-school, but it’s not discriminatory,” Mars said. “He’d feel the same way if a young Larry [Bird] was playing for UA-Fort Smith. That said, he’s going to make it abundantly clear to everyone concerned that he recruits players based on their talent and character. Coach Boone also wants to make clear that, despite what he thinks about personal grooming standards for student-athletes, he doesn’t believe (and never has) that a player’s hairstyle, tattoo sleeves, or body piercings are indicative of their character or their potential to become the next Larry [Bird] or LeBron James.”

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The first statement also accused Williams of having an ulterior motive.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve seen similar accusations made against a head coach by a student-athlete whose real motive is to create grounds for a waiver from the NCAA.”

“Tyler wasn’t mistreated, and the issue about his hair had nothing to do with his decision to leave UA-Fort Smith. To the contrary, Tyler Williams transferred to a school in Oklahoma because Coach Boone had recruited some players who were more talented.”

Williams, an Oklahoma native, played at Northeastern Oklahoma A&M and Allen Community College in Kansas before joining UAFS. Williams announced Aug. 25 that he transferred to Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla.

“I loved it there,” Williams said of UAFS. “That was my second home. Being told I couldn’t play because of my hair, that hurt.”

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