OZAUKEE PRESS EDITORIAL: School’s moment to shine turns ugly

Last week’s Port Washington High School boys’ varsity basketball game was a golden opportunity for the school to show off its new gym to a crowd that  had come to cheer on the Pirates and see Nicolet High School basketball star Jalen Johnson play.

But instead of a shining moment in the grand new high school building, it was an embarrassment, one that was illustrated with pictures that went viral on social media and appeared in newspapers and on TV newscasts around the country of a screaming mob of Port High students holding photocopies of a picture showing Johnson, who is black, wearing a charcoal facial mask that looked as if he was wearing blackface.

The incident was certainly a graphic illustration of crude behavior and reflects a lack of understanding of and an insensitivity to racism, which a half-century after the civil rights movement continues to be a scourge on society. It should go without saying that this behavior has no place in Port Washington or any other part of the country.

And that the father of one of the students involved, instead of urging students to think about the ugly implications of their plan to target Johnson, encouraged the incident by copying the disparaging image of him and distributing it at the game is inexplicable, especially at a time when the pain caused by blackface and other symbols of bigotry are well documented in the news of the day.

While last week’s incident was a nadir for Port High, it was also a symptom of the lack of civility plaguing sports in general. Good-natured razzing of an opposing team has long been part of competitive sports, but when did it become acceptable, especially at the high school level, to single out a player or a referee and subject him or her to harassment?

Johnson did nothing to deserve the treatment he received. He wasn’t targeted because he’s a bully on the court or rude to fans. He was ridiculed because he’s a very good player, ranked by ESPN as the third best player in the nation in the Class of 2020.

Referees and umpires are also the targets of ridicule at high school events throughout the state, and it’s not students who are primarily to blame. The National Federation of State High School Associations and Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association recently wrote a letter published in newspapers throughout Wisconsin urging parents  to “cool it.” Citing an “alarming shortage” of high school officials, the organizations said that more than 75% of referees and umpires who quit do so because of “adult behavior.”

Students and the parent who was involved explained that at last week’s Port High game the goal was to rattle Johnson, to get in his head and ruin his game. Regardless of how Johnson played, the incident no doubt ruined his night, leaving him with an awful impression of Port Washington while embarrassing the community and tarnishing the reputation of Port High. Johnson got it right when he responded to a Twitter comment condemning the incident by tweeting, “UNACCEPTABLE.”

Port High has condemned the behavior, and students who were involved have written a letter of apology to Johnson. That’s a good start, but there is more work to do.

Administrators need to make clear to students and other fans that the civility with which we are expected to lead our lives does not get checked at the doors to gyms and the entrances to fields. Taunting players, who after all are high school athletes participating in games that are supposed to be fun, and referees and umpires doing their jobs can’t be tolerated. And those who do not abide by those expectations should be shown the door.

Port High is a good school with good students, which makes last week’s behavior all the more shocking. The onus is now on administrators to make sure it’s not repeated, because what good is a beautiful new gym if it’s home to ugly behavior.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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