Racist Harassment Against Black Student-Athletes: “We just play through it”

For Black student-athletes, traveling outside of city limits to play against predominantly white schools comes with facing racist violence and harassment. The post Racist Harassment Against Black Student-Athletes: “We just play through it” appeared first on Kansas City Defender.

Racist Harassment Against Black Student-Athletes: “We just play through it”
Students from Center Middle School captured on the sidelines during the football game against Harrisonville Middle School on September 6th, 2023. (Lynnie Holl)

The impact of the 26-year lawsuit aiming to desegregate Kansas City’s public schools remains prevalent. From school closures to loss of accreditation, the failures from Missouri vs. Jenkins (“Jenkins II”) serves as a catalyst for an even more racial divide between school districts in Kansas City and its surrounding areas. Harrisonville, for example, a town 40 minutes south of Kansas City, is made up of over 90% white residents while Black Residents account for under 2% of its population. This lopsided demographic is not unusual for towns on the outskirts of Kansas City. Pleasant Hill,another town south of city limits, shares a similar demographic of an 89% to 5% ratio. For many Black Kansas Citians, this racial divide presents the potential for danger. For many Black student-athletes, traveling outside of city limits to play against predominantly white schools comes with facing racist violence and harassment.

Same old game

Members of the Kansas City community confirmed with The Defender that racist harassment targeted towards Black student-athletes is not a new phenomenon. DJ Q, or Q, a premier DJ of Kansas City, spoke with The Defender and recalled his time at Center High School from 1996-2000.

“That was a big thing we dealt with as players back then because the push to get Black people out of the city started back then,” said Q, “Pushing [Black] people to Raytown, Grandview, the Center District, it started to become more integrated and we always played the teams that were in the middle of Missouri.”

As the matchups between the more integrated schools and the schools from Middle Missouri became more routine, so did the harassment. In fact, the harassment became so routine that after a while, Black student-athletes began to expect the racist mistreatment when they played against those schools.

“If you knew you were playing Platte County, Ray-Pec, Belton, Excelsior Springs, you knew they were going to say the n-word on the field or call you a monkey.” DJ Q

For some Black student-athletes, just leaving the Kansas City limits and traveling to certain areas was alarming enough.

Kevin Nickerson, a 1998 high school graduate and a former Kansas City standout explained, “Going into the rural areas like Webb City, or even the suburban areas like Lee’s Summit, you could feel the racial tension and divide.” 

Racism beyond the field

It would be naive to assume the racist harassment targeted towards Black student-athletes only occurs in the field of play or between the sidelines on a basketball court. This level of harassment often spills over into the stands. Student sections made of mostly white students may orchestrate racist demonstrations before or during a game. Readers may recall The Defender covering a story last December about white students from Valley Center High School threatening Black players from Topeka High School, taunting them with a blackface babydoll, and even attempting to raid their locker rooms. These violent displays from white fans and students are not an anomaly.

In 2011, The Pitch reported on a racist incident allegedly involving parents and students from Grain Valley High School taunting members of Lincoln Prep girl’s soccer team. This incident was reported over ten years ago and speaks to the ongoing racist behavior Black-student athletes are faced with.

One cheer coach, who requested to remain anonymous, recalls an incident in 2022 where her cheer squad (of mostly Black student-athletes) traveled to Grain Valley for a basketball game. The coach and the cheer team were greeted with Trump flags and “Back the Blue” signage hanging above Grain Valley’s largely white student section.

“You know they don’t normally have those signs up,” the coach explained.

“They only put those signs up because they were playing us.”

Students of Grain Valley walking the school’s hallways draped in Trump Flags in 2021 (Alayna West, Snapchat)

The coach brought this to the attention of the Grain Valley’s administrators. The signs were taken down, but only momentarily. The coach and her team, after being targets of this display of white supremacy, had to regain their focus and morale, but that was short lived. 

“Just before the game started,” the coach recalls, “they put those signs right back up”

Lack of Interference

Parents of Black student-athletes bring their concerns of racist attacks against their child(ren) to the school’s administration or the head coach. When these concerns are presented, however, there is little, if any, corrective action taken.

According to Black parents of Center Middle School (“CMS”), eighth grade students of their football team were victims of racist harrassment in their match against Harrisonville Middle School last year. 

One parent, who requested anonymity to avoid any scrutiny towards her son, informed The Defender that the Center Middle School coaching staff was made aware that white players from Harrisonville were using racial slurs against Black players. However, when The Defender spoke with Travis Brave, athletic director for CMS, he informed The Defender that he had no knowledge of that occurring––an indication that the concerns of Black parents were not escalated beyond the football field and discarded without any investigation.

In some instances, ignoring acts of racism is merely part of the game. Some white referees enable the behavior by choosing not to penalize white players for using racist slurs towards Black players during a game.

“Back then, the refs would never throw a flag on them,” explained Q when speaking about the unbalanced officiating in football. “But if a Black kid said a cuss word or if a Black kid said ‘nigga’ they calling a personal foul and ejecting them,” he continued. 

For some athletes, they are forced to deal with racist harm throughout the course of the game. One student-athlete from Center High School explained that he heard about racist harassment from other players. When The Defender asked what happens when white players haul racist slurs on the field, he answered:

“We just play through it.” 

Expecting Black student-athletes to just “play through” acts of racism without any accountability enables white players to continue to do harm against them. This, then, leads to Black student-athletes to defend themselves. 

During a football game between Oak Park HIgh School and North Kansas City (“NKC”) High School in 2020, a Black player from NKC acted “out of character” when he bodied-slammed a white player from Oak Park. The Black player was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. When his coaches asked him why he acted uncharacteristically, he said that the white player had been calling him a “ni–er” throughout the whole game.

End of regulation

Racist harassment targeted towards Black student-athletes is certainly not specific to Kansas City. High Schools in California have reported similar instances. The difference is these schools in California are taking action.

As reported by CNN in 2022, the River Valley High School football team forfeited the remainder of their season when members of the football team re-enacted a slave auction. The students involved in the re-enactment were barred from further participation. This resulted in their varsity team forfeiting the rest of the season.

In a written statement to CNN, Superintendent Doreen Osumi said, “They may have thought this skit was funny, but it is not; it is unacceptable and requires us to look honestly and deeply at issues of systemic racism.”

In 2022, The Los Angeles Times reported that another California high school suspended their football season after becoming aware of a racist group chat involving members of their football team.  According to the report, football players for Amador High, a mostly white school, were involved in a group chat thread rumored to be titled “Kill the Blacks.” The decision to forfeit the season was made shortly after their matchup against Rosemont High––a mostly Black and Latino school––was called off.

The decision for both schools to forfeit their season was supported by the California Interscholastic Federation: the organization that oversees high school sports for the state. In a statement reported by the Los Angeles Times, the organization said, “Discrimination in any form or any acts that are disrespectful or demeaning are unacceptable.”-

Black community members across Missouri and Kansas have long been waiting for something to be done. With a history of inaction and complacency, some Black members of the community have little faith that any change will be done but still demand action. 

“You have all these schools that don’t wanna do anything about it,” explained Q during his conversation with The Defender, “That’s where the solution is unaligned,” he continued, “If your fanbase, your players, and your whole school district is littered with people who simply don’t mind racial terrorism, something has to be done.”

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