Students apologize for ‘unsportsmanlike behavior’ after taunting player with photo

Letter does not address image of Nicolet High star wearing charcoal skin-care

PORT WASHINGTON High School students held up images of Nicolet High School basketball star Jalen Johnson showing him wearing a charcoal facial mask as he took a shot during a Feb. 13 game at Port High. The taunting has drawn widespread criticism, and this week students apologized to Johnson. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington High School students this week apologized to Nicolet High School basketball star Jalen Johnson for what they called unsportsmanlike conduct after taunting him during a Feb. 13 boys’ varsity game at Port High with chants of “overrated” and copies of a photo of him wearing a charcoal facial mask that elicited accusations of racism.

“We would like to sincerely apologize to you, your family and friends for the unsportsmanlike behavior that you received from our student section,” a hand-written letter authored by eight of the students involved read. “We realize that our actions to single you out (were) done in poor judgement, and we are very sorry.”

The letter, which is signed “members of the Port Washington High School student body cheering section,” does not address the controversial photo, which makes it appear as if Johnson was wearing blackface, or the accusations of racism.

“Our intention was to distract your attention from the game,” the students wrote.

Photos of dozens of screaming Port High students holding the photo of Johnson went viral on social media and the incident was the subject of news coverage throughout the country.

According to Nicolet High School Supt. Robert Kobylski, the photo, which was taken off an Instagram account, shows Johnson wearing a charcoal facial mask, which he noted is a common skin-care product.

“I cannot speak to the motivation or intent the Port Washington students had in displaying this photo, whether a harmless skin-care prank or a more deeply troubling, racially motivated scenario,” Kobylski wrote in a statement released the day after the game.

Asked about the incident this week, Port Washington-Saukville School Supt. Michael Weber said, “What occurred at the basketball game was truly unsportsmanlike behavior, and we’re taking care of it.”

He said Port High Athletic Director Thad Gabrielse and teacher Eric Carlson quickly confiscated the images of Johnson at the game.

“They (the images) were only up for a minute or less,” Weber said. “Unfortunately, it only takes a couple of seconds to take a picture of that and put it on social media without any explanation.

“It all got caught up in social media before administrators had a chance to sort out what happened.”

In a statement the day after the incident, Port High Principal Eric Burke called the photo of Johnson displayed by students “entirely unacceptable.”

“The signs can be viewed by some as racist and are just plain wrong,” the statement read. “This conduct can be viewed as harmful and hateful.

“We condemn such behavior because this is not representative of the values of our district.”

Johnson, who is considered one of the top college recruits in the Class of 2020, responded to a comment on Twitter condemning the incident by tweeting “UNACCEPTABLE.”

Burke said he does not believe the incident was racially motivated. 

“They (students) found a picture of him (Johnson) on social media that I guess they thought was embarrassing or made him look funny,” Burke said. “I talked with some of the students involved and they told me they were trying to rattle him.”

One student who was involved with reproducing the images was suspended, Burke said, although he would not say for how long.

A father of one of the students who participated in the incident helped reproduce the image and distribute it at the game, Burke said. 

“It is also extremely disappointing that a parent was involved in printing the signs,” Burke’s statement read. “Even if nothing bad was intended, the conduct sends a bad message.”

Burke said the school has taken action against the parent but would not say what the action was. 

Noting that Port High’s sportsmanship expectations are read before games and included in programs, Burke said the school will re-emphasize those expectations.

“We want our kids to practice good sportsmanship and cheer for their team, not against the other team,” he said. “We talk about Character Counts and being good sportsmen, and that’s a conversation we need to continue as a school district and a community.”

Weber said that from now on all signs will have to be approved before being allowed in the gym.

Referring to a recent letter from the National Federation of State High School Associations and Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association urging parents to “cool it,” Weber said that dealing with a lack of civility at athletic competitions is an issue for schools throughout the state.

“The tenor of athletic competitions is a challenging issue, and it’s telling when the WIAA issues an open letter urging parents not to harass officials,” he said. “There’s a sportsmanship challenge throughout the state, but I know that our kids have generally been very respectful.”

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