By Julissa Catalan
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) confirmed on Tuesday that an investigation of alleged racial taunting by members of the Summit High School football team is under way.
Last week, Summit hosted North Plainfield High School, which has a football team that is more than half Black. The teams dressed in adjoining locker rooms, separated by a door with a missing knob.
Anthony Lafond, an NPHS player, told CBS 2 that a banana “was in the door and you could see through the door, because it didn’t have doorknobs, so you could see right through the hole, and they put the banana right through there.”
Teammate J.T. Valley, a team captain, continues the story: “We told our coach, we’re like, ‘Coach, there’s a banana in there.’ So we took the banana, and then all of a sudden, they put another one. And we took the banana out, and there was another one in there. And they kept on putting them in there.”
Charles Thomas, also a captain, told MyCentralJersey.com: “I was really shocked. Our school is very diverse, and we don’t have this kind of stuff. We were all offended. Our team was angry. We are like brothers. We don’t see anybody as being better than the other. We’re all the same. We’re all people.”
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Summit Public Schools Superintendent Nathan Parker characterized the incident as a misunderstanding. He explained that the practice of putting a banana in the hole of the door began last year to prevent each team from overhearing the other’s strategy. But when Summit went on to win the state title, the players adopted the banana as a good luck charm.
“Racism is unacceptable,” Parker’s statement read. “We do not tolerate it in our schools, on our fields, or in our community. One of Summit’s greatest assets is its diverse community, something that we truly value. The Summit coaches and administration have discussed the inappropriate nature of this act with the team. There was no intent to be insulting to the North Plainfield football players and we apologize that they were made to feel that way.”
North Plainfield School District Assistant Superintendent Robert Rich isn’t convinced. “The problem I have about it is that I don’t know what was in the players’ minds when they did it,” he said. “Were they really trying to intimidate our team I don’t know. I don’t know the kids. It’s very difficult for me to get my hands around the whole thing. We have been told that it wasn’t done with malicious intent. But some of our players interpreted it as being malicious.”
There were also reports that banana peels were left on the floor prior to North Plainfield’s arrival, but Parker debunked that in his statement. “We have investigated this incident and this is not the case,” he said. “Summit Athletic Director Bob Lockhart led the North Plainfield coaches and team managers into the locker room and the floor was clean.”
Parker also said that the missing knob would be replaced.
As of the 2010 Census, whites made up 83.5 percent of the Summit’s population, while Blacks accounted for only 4.5 percent. In contrast, North Plainfield, which had almost the same total population, was 55.0 percent white and 18.9% Black. The NPHS football team is 53 percent Black (27 of 51 players), according to Coach Bobby Lake.
Both schools are required to submit reports from the game for official review.
“Violations to the sportsmanship policy are submitted to the department of civil rights. Once we receive the information we will make a determination of what our next course of action will be. It could be the possibility of a controversy hearing,” New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association Executive Director Steve Timko said.
Last year, NJSIAA entered an agreement with the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General to investigate “bias incidents alleged to happen at sanctioned sporting events,” making the athletic association the first in the country to implement a ban on bigotry during sporting events.
According to the policy: “NJSIAA is telling coaches, players, and officials that provocative language aimed at a player’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability or sexual orientation, is every bit as unsportsmanlike as obscene or profane language. Race-baiting, ethnic slurs, and taunting crosses the line and will not be tolerated on the playing field just as it is not tolerated in the classroom.”
North Plainfield and Summit had a junior-varsity football game scheduled for this past Monday. The sides mutually agreed to cancel that contest.