The PIAA’s Lombardi said he has no tolerance for racism at the high school sports level. (Photo by Joe Hermitt, PennLive staff)
Lombardi said he has confidence that officials have imposed penalties to violators and even ejected individuals from games, both of which have happened across the state. Still, he said, racially fueled incidents are rare and isolated. When they happen, it’s a matter handled at the local school level.
“They are dealt with usually quickly and severely by the administrations,” Lombardi said. “That’s a credit to those administrations.”
Some say racially fueled behavior is a byproduct of the charged atmosphere at sporting events.
“We live in an environment where people get into a game situation [and] they have a tendency to lose control of common sense,” East Pennsboro Township athletic director James Hudson said. “You see it on television. You’ll see fans who just want to be a part of the game. … Obviously we, as a school, would not condone making fun of our kids or any other kids in any way.”
In a venue inflamed by school rivalries, the competitive desire to win, and frankly, teenagers at the cusp of young adulthood, inappropriate and hateful language has become a by-product of the heat of the moment.
“Sometimes emotions get out of control in a game, but once a slur is mentioned, it has a tendency to feed and grows like wildfire,” Mifflin County football coach George Miskinis said.
“I think it’s very inappropriate. Everybody has to realize that just because you pay the price for admittance, it doesn’t give you the right to demean or criticize or make slurs or put down an opponent whether it’s race, creed, or religion. It doesn’t matter.”
Bob Smetana, coach of Carlisle girls’ basketball, said that while he has never in his 15 years of coaching come across racially fueled assaults on any team, he knows racism spills into the high school sports arena.
“I think a lot of people take competition the wrong way,” he said. “It’s an emotional game. There’s no reason that what happens sometimes should happen, but a lot of time people get overwhelmed. People can’t control themselves.”
The onus, Miskinis said, is on game-management personnel to step in any time the PIAA sportsmanship code is violated in a high school sports event.
But students, coaches, athletic directors and parents said officials have not always extended a sensitive response to their concerns about racist incidents at games.
The issue surfaced in February, when a day after the Susquehanna Township girls’ basketball team lost a pivotal game to Red Land, the former team’s coach took to social media to report that her players had been the victims of racial slurs.
Julie Denniston is white, her team predominantly black, and the home team fan base mostly white.
Denniston’s post unleashed a frenzy on social media, as opinions of every shade ran amok, the vitriol spiked with more than just rivalry. The Red Land community insisted the incident never happened, while others lent credence to her claims with troubling stories of their own.
Denniston did not respond to requests for comment. She resigned her post in late April after coaching six years at the school. According to sources, Denniston is in line to take an assistant coaching position at Penn State-Harrisburg, a move that likely won’t be announced until later in the summer.
Conjar said that over the years he has lodged numerous complaints with officials against offensive racist language. The matter largely got “brushed under,” he said.
Few incidents have enraged Conjar more than the one he said happened this year during an away boys’ basketball game against East Pennsboro Township. Among the rally cheers from home fans were chants of “Get your fried chicken,” “Did you have watermelon for supper?” to the Steel-High team, a predominantly black squad.
In addition to bringing the matter to the attention of game officials that night, Conjar reported the racial chants to conference officials, as well as Hudson and the district superintendent.
“To my knowledge, nothing was addressed,” he said. “It seems to me I was the only guy upset. If I was the [athletic director] and I had fans who were chanting that, every one of them would have to go home. I’m sorry. It’s uncalled for.”
Hudson said he responded to Conjar’s concerns that night and had security ask the offenders to refrain from those chants.
“I still don’t know what the exact comment was that he found offensive,” Hudson said.
Hudson objected to Conjar characterizing the incident larger than it was.
“It was two students who made this comment,” he said. “It wasn’t the entire section. I was on other side of gym; I didn’t hear it. But it’s not a hostile environment.”
Parents say they were frustrated, at times, that officials and school administrators met the incidents they reported with indifference.
Jennifer Tate-DeFreitas said she was compelled to call police, when security at a game against East Pennsboro Township did nothing after she reported that home fans were racially taunting her daughter, Malia.
Two township police officers came out and wrote up a report, but left without doing anything. “When you have school authority watching and they don’t feel there is anything wrong with what is being said, it makes you feel like it’s acceptable,” she said.
Steel-High’s Malia Tate-DeFreitas poses with her parents, Jennifer Tate-DeFreitas and Malik DeFreitas after she surpassed 3,000 points for her career.
(Joe Hermitt, PennLive staff)
But even when conference officials have heard their grievances, coaches and athletic directors of predominantly black teams said they draw the short end of the stick in a controversy involving a white team.
Former Steelton head football coach Tom Hailey said firsthand experience confirmed what he long suspected.
Early this season, in a game against Susquenita, Hailey said an opponent who had been calling his player the N-word provoked one of his players. Just before halftime, with Steelton leading 26-0, the two players threw punches. An on-field scuffle between the two quickly got out of hand, when a third Susquenita player jumped in, prompting a melee. Other players got involved, as coaches and officials tried to order everyone back to their respective benches.
The incident lasted less than a minute, but officials stopped the game, and both schools were tagged with forfeit losses. Accounts of the incident went viral on social media, overwhelmingly, the majority of them pointing the finger at Steelton.
Hailey said that for him, the most disappointing part about the experience was the meeting with District 3 officials, a meeting he said was billed as an effort to be transparent and present what really happened on the field.
The fact that his team was saddled with suspensions and a forfeit was hardest of all, knowing, he said, that his player had been provoked by repeated racial slurs.
“It’s that stigma that really bothered me,” Hailey said. “It was portrayed unfairly, but that stigma is out there. People cross their arms and say, ‘See, I told you.’ And that’s not fair to our kids, our staff or the school. But there are certain things you can control, like staying onside and making a block. There are certain things in life you can’t control, so what can you do?”
The PIAA’s Lombardi said he has no tolerance for racism at the high school sports level.
“I’m very disappointed for the simple reason that there’s an avenue for this to be addressed,” he said. “Students can tell coaches, coaches can go to the athletic administration, the athletic administration can go to game management or the administration of the school to deal with this swiftly. This is not acceptable in contests, period.”
Fred Isopi, executive director of the Mid-Penn Conference, conceded that with some 30 schools in the conference, officials have little recourse if no one lodges a complaint or report with his board. The same applies if a school or coach goes outside of the chain of command in airing grievances about an incident, he said.
“How can something be done when nothing is officially reported?” Isopi asked.
For the most part, he said, the conference board, which comprises athletic directors and superintendents, has conducted no major investigation into racial intimidation, although he said it has had “conversations” with schools. The issues, he said, have been resolved at the schools level.
“You can’t go on a rumor,” Isopi said. “It has to go through official channels. If there are isolated incidents, I’m not aware of it. We’ve not had anything brought to our board members from schools, individuals or administrations indicating there has been anything in this area.”