Penn Hills boys soccer players probably knew they were in for a fierce Class 4A, Section 3 match against Connellsville on Tuesday, September 6.
Instead, they left the small town along the Youghiogheny River in Fayette County not only coming away with 6-1 loss, but its African-American players were subjected to repeated racial slurs from Connellsville players and fans during the game played at Connellsville High School.
“It was so disturbing that it warranted our position and immediate involvement of WPIAL,” Nancy Hines, Penn Hills superintendent, said to Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Hines declared that the Penn Hills teams in all sports, which currently compete in same section in current Fall sports soccer and volleyball, will not travel to Connellsville or host the school until the incident is investigated and resolved by the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL).
It had to be pretty bad for Hines and her school district to take immediate action.
Congratulations to Penn Hills Superintendent for taking a stand and supporting her Student Athletes. I hope other School Districts and Student athletes boycott until it’s resolved. #DC5 https://t.co/MyjmQUFYa0
— Sean L. McCaskill (@DC5StarAthlete) September 11, 2018
While there may be some truth in that we can boast that we live in a time where there is more inclusion than ever in our country, as long as incidents like this continue to happen, more needs to be done.
It doesn’t help matters that our current national climate has become even more divisive. This incident only adds further proof that racist attitudes and ideas remain prevalent — even right here in Western Pennsylvania.
And on our soccer fields.
This latest incident is one of multiple stories that have been brought to the forefront in the past year alone in our area involving racially motivated high school player and/or fan behaviors that have turned ugly. A quick scan of news stories from past year in Western PA, and a number of stories can be found with similar episodes.
This troubling and replicating story line includes a similar formula: games played at overwhelmingly white school district where minority participants from the visiting teams are often intimidated and belittled.
The WPIAL’s board of directors will review this incident on Monday, and likely will follow up with disciplinary action as warranted.
What may be most disturbing about this particular incident, based on reports read and heard from witnesses, is that game officials didn’t do much to deescalate the situation.
Penn Hills players brought up taunting and name-calling multiple times throughout the game to the officials, to no avail.
In the Tribune-Review article, one Penn Hills player, Jonah Silverman, cited one of the official’s response: “I’ll watch for it.”
“They did warn us about our language,” he said. “Like when players were using profanity … so it’s not like (the officials) couldn’t hear them.”
Apparently using racial slurs doesn’t qualify as profanity?
Instead, Penn Hills player was issued a yellow card when interacting with the official.
For all intents and purposes, these referees did nothing about the racially charged remarks that were made during the game by Connellsville players, and adding salt to the wounds, slurs also came from adult fans in the stands.
Players can be warned or disciplined during the game.
Fans can be asked to leave.
If you’ve ever attended a WPIAL sporting event, prior to every contest, the PA announcer reads a sportsmanship pledge, reminding parents and spectators to do their part as well. The officials are required to go over Sportsmanship pledge with the players and coaches at each game.
The officials, who understandably have a very difficult job to do, have the ability to nip these incidents in the bud — right there on the field and set the tone.
There are many activists and community leaders who have proposed ideas and solutions over the years with mixed results in addressing such incidents and helping build bridges between the players from each school and the communities involved.
While doing things like creating sportsmanship pledges that are read before games (or posted in program books) may be appear to be a proactive solution, it just doesn’t seem like it’s enough. I have always admired famed sociologist-activist Harry Edwards‘ approach of facing people and communities ingrained with racial prejudices head-on.
“You have to define the problem, face the problem and approach it in a resolvable fashion in order to get to it,” said Edwards. “Otherwise, we will be stuck spinning our wheels where people will be having to come to conferences over racism.”
Sportsmanship pledges emanate from conferences and workshops. Those are the type of solutions that keep the wheels spinning and spinning.
The ball is in the WPIAL’s court now. Immediate and swift action will need to follow its next board meeting on September 17.
The game officials should be held accountable if things escalated as it appeared they did on September 6 and repercussions should be placed on Connellsville School District — especially if they fail to act.
Superintendent Joseph Bradley has said that he was disgusted with the behavior of players and fans alike, and will not put up with any unsportsmanlike behavior. Bradley intends to “fully investigate, apply appropriate consequences or programmatic changes, and ultimately provide a teachable moment to all involved.”
Indeed, there’s work to be done in the Connellsville School District, and many places around our region and across the Country. As a school district that is currently 97 percent white, they must think outside the box to work with young people in its communities to build greater understanding and embrace cultural and ethnic diversity.
Disclaimers in Student Athlete Handbooks or Student Cheering Section Guidelines aren’t enough.
Cancelling games between the schools in the short term is okay. But in the long-term, they need to get back on the playing field. Positive changes can come out of this — and there’s an opportunity here.
Connellsville has to own up to this — and take swift action and address this head on.
The seeds of hatred and ignorance were planted many generations ago.
There’s nothing more satisfying than after game, watching two teams that just played their tails off — and seeing players from different completely backgrounds and communities come together to shake hands and pat each other on the back in a meaningful way. That’s what should happen when these two schools come together again.
It’s my sincere hope that with an appropriate response and swift response to follow, and these seeds of hatred will start to be weeded out in the days, months and years to come.