SALT LAKE CITY — Allegations of racist taunts from high school basketball fans are forcing school and state officials to examine what — if anything — they can do to defend and protect players and coaches from offensive and disruptive behavior.
The issue has become so incendiary, Intermountain Christian School in Murray recently filed a complaint with the Utah High School Activities Association and announced it will no longer compete against teams from Tabiona in Duchesne County. Complicating the matter is a debate about just how much authority school officials have when it comes to policing fan behavior.
“There is a dispute, in general terms, that is a sportsmanship violation alleged by (Intermountain Christian School) against Tabiona High School arising out of events at at least two games,” said Mark Van Wagoner, attorney for the Utah High School Activities Association. “The association is concerned about it because it’s not just a dispute between two schools, but it involves alleged racism. The association is keenly aware of the need to combat racism wherever it comes up, even if it’s in high school sports.”
Shortly after that complaint was filed, the Duchesne County School District hired attorney Blake Ostler to investigate the allegations, including some that Tabiona High players made against Intermountain’s head coach.
Mitch Menning, who is head of Intermountain Christian School, said the school had no choice but to take drastic action because it felt Tabiona officials were unresponsive in dealing with the issues.
The first incident occurred on Jan. 18, when Tabiona played at Intermountain. During that game a fan, an elderly relative of one of the Tabiona players, yelled racist slurs at basketball coach Tim Drisdom, who is African-American, according to reports from both schools on the incident.
The fan yelled “Blackie go home” at Drisdom, and while the coach didn’t hear it, Intermountain students did, including Menning’s son. When a student confronted the fan about the racist taunt, he responded, “Well, he is a Negro, isn’t he?”
While this incident wasn’t reported to Tabiona school officials until the following week, two Tabiona fans were ejected by game officials for what “appears to have involved inappropriate comments to referees and opposing players,” according to Ostler’s investigation.
And according to Ostler's report to the association, a player from Tabiona told his coach that during the post-game handshakes, Drisdom had said, “Son, if you ever look at me like that again, you will lose your life.”
Drisdom adamantly denied threatening the boy, saying that he did pull him close and say, “Don’t you ever disrespect an adult like that. You’re not about that life,” according to Mitch Menning.
While Ostler’s report said video evidence indicated the conversation between the two couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds, he couldn’t conclusively confirm either version of events. Menning said he “trust and believes” Drisdom’s version of events.
The situation between the two schools deteriorated even more when they played at Tabiona High on Feb. 15.
During the junior varsity game, Intermountain Christian's coach and principal approached Tabiona's principal to let him know that the fan who’d yelled racist taunts in their previous meeting was sitting “front and center” and that he’d mouthed insults at Drisdom during the game, according the school's complaint. They asked that the fan be removed or, at minimum, moved so he was sitting behind the Tabiona bench.
Neither of those things happened.
Tabiona officials told Ostler that they said he couldn’t move because “he needed oxygen and that is the only location that oxygen is available in the gym,” the report said.
Menning shared a one-page summary of Intermountain Christian's issues with Tabiona with the Deseret News, and that summary said the fan clapped to get Drisdom’s attention and then mouthed an expletive-laden insult at the coach.
Intermountain Christian officials said after the game they asked that the fan be ejected or moved, and were never told his oxygen was an issue. Instead, they were told “it would cause significant disturbance and even more racial comments would be made,” Menning’s summary said.
He said fans targeted specific players, including a player who was taunted until he responded. The player received two technicals, one for responding to fans, and was ejected from the game. Intermountain students told Menning that when the player was ejected, Tabiona fans yelled, “Get that (expletive) (racist slur) out of here,” the complaint said. Tabiona administrators said in an email to Ostler that was shared with the Deseret News that these insults were not heard by any other Tabiona fans.
Menning and other Intermountain Christian School officials see Tabiona head coach Lee Gines as complicit, and accuse him of clapping and smiling during the incident as “an act of aggression toward coach Drisdom,” Menning’s complaint said.
There were also allegations made by both sides about bad behavior outside the locker rooms that possibly involved parents. And according to Ostler's report there were complaints about the fact that some adult fans were made to leave the school, and on a separate occasion other ejected adult fans were allowed to stay inside the school until the game ended because of a winter storm.
Representatives from both schools, including Ostler and Menning, met last Wednesday for a mediation in an attempt to avoid a hearing on the issues. After four hours, they ended without an agreement, although Van Wagoner called it “a good start.”
At that hearing, Tabiona officials offered a letter of apology from the fan at the heart of the controversy, although Intermountain Christian's original complaint includes racist slurs from other fans, including some between Tabiona and Manila in a separate game.
The association hopes to also tackle the issue about what school officials can do about unruly fans, including whether banning them from a public school is an option.
Van Wagoner asked both sides to provide legal support for arguments supporting their positions on fan ejections and punishments, and whether school officials can ban fans without providing them some kind of hearing.
“The things that remain are larger issues,” Van Wagoner said of where the two schools are still at odds.
Van Wagoner said the association will hold a hearing May 20 at 10 a.m. in front of a panel of principals from its executive committee. All sides had hoped to not only solve the issue between the two schools but find a way to see something positive and educational come from the controversy.
“The association has been attempting to find resolution between the schools and also bring a supervening proposition of the schools working together with people who can bring awareness of this problem to the schools,” Van Wagoner said. “We’ve been unable to resolve the dispute, but that doesn’t mean the other objective goes unfulfilled.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported a player who responded to taunting by Tabiona fans is black. He is not. The story also stated the Utah High School Activities Association will hold a hearing for the principals of Intermountain Christian School and Tabiona High School on May 20 at 1 p.m. The hearing is at 10 a.m.