East Lansing players kneel during the National Anthem at a football game against Dewitt on Oct. 1, including Ethan Dewitt (12). “We’re taking a stand for what’s right,” Dewitt said. (Photo by Kalyn Emerson)
From across the field
District responds to harmful language after playoff game
A note from the editors:This piece is reporting on the use of slurs, vulgar language, violence, racism, and hateful behavior. In cases of language, Portrait has either omitted or censored the terms. Portrait wished to keep the terms in some form in order to better convey what happened at the game. Videos that contain sensitive content have warnings.
Ever since Asher Gregory (12) joined the football team, they have always kneeled for the national anthem. But when he knelt before facing South Lyon at their stadium in the MHSAA’s district championship he felt there was something different about the environment— it didn’t feel safe or comfortable to play on.
And when the football team knelt down for the national anthem, as they have for every other game this season, someone shouted a vulgar insult at the team. When it happened, no one looked up to the instigator. But everyone on the field heard it.
After that, Gregory felt it became “us vs. them,” and nothing felt right. And the outburst was followed by a steady barrage of more taunts, physical violence, insults and chants from the crowd throughout the game— all of which were ignored by the referees.
“It was like this animosity that was like, there just wasn’t a good feeling,” Gregory said. “I didn’t like playing in that environment. But you know, I had to, because it was the playoffs. And it was just kind of scary to be honest… it just wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t right. [The referees] were obviously seeing the things that were being done to us, but they didn’t do anything about it. It was really disgusting.”
According to several football players including Ethan Dewitt (12) and William Beekman (11) the first thing they heard during the national anthem was someone telling them to stand up using explicit language.
Since the beginning of the 2020 season, the majority of the team agreed to take a knee during the national anthem and while it can sometimes be met with looks and negative feelings, this time was different.
“We’re taking a stand for what’s right, and what happened was while we were taking me someone in the student section yelled, stand up p*****,” Dewitt said. “and there was a lot of booing.”
Soon after the incident, Livingston Counties’ radio station, WHMI, uncovered a statement made by the South Lyon Community Schools Assistant Superintendent Brian Toth about the matter.
“A spectator at the South Lyon High School vs. East Lansing High School football game made an inappropriate comment during the playing of the National Anthem. It is regrettable that this spectator chose to say the inappropriate comment. Our staff investigated the comment using video and spectator interviews. The investigation has led us to believe the comment was made by a spectator who was standing in our student section. That spectator is not a South Lyon Community Schools student nor affiliated with South Lyon Community Schools. The South Lyon High School athletic director has been in frequent contact with the athletic director at East Lansing High School regarding the allegations of inappropriate comments made by South Lyon High School football players. The East Lansing coaches and game officials have been questioned and no such concerns regarding inappropriate comments were brought to their attention during or after the game. At no point have concerns about the sportsmanship of our student-athletes been raised by the East Lansing athletic director. These types of comments are not condoned nor are they representative of our students, staff, and community,” Toth said.
But this sentiment is the opposite of what ELHS student-athletes said and reported.
Videos related to the events at South Lyon. Content warning: These videos contain obscene language and physical violence, both of which are presumably racially motivated. Courtesy of East Lansing Info
“I know what I heard. I know what the video says. I know what happened on that field and my teammates know what happened on the field,” Hayden Healey (11) said. “Now if they’re willing to deny it, then they can deny it. But everybody knows the 20 players that were on that field and played that and then knows exactly what happened.”
Athletics Director Nicole Norris shared Healey’s perspective and added that she had been in communication with the South Lyon athletics director. After the game, she prepared a report about the incident after speaking with players and parents.
“I spoke with that athletic director every day for five days straight, at least once a day,” Norris said. “‘[I told them] this is what I’ve got, you know, what are you hearing? This is what my players are telling me. This is what I believe happened.’”
For these kinds of investigations, Norris interviews people involved in the incident and puts together a report. She then sends the report to people who need it, which can range from school administration to the MHSAA. This report was sent to the South Lyon athletics director, but not yet to the MHSAA, who she will give a hard copy to during a face to face meeting.
And as a systemic issue, it is not new. It isn’t even the first time it’s happened this year. A soccer player was subjected to racist remarks while at a game against Petoskey in September.
When this happened, she gave the report directly to the executive director of the MHSAA.
The association relies heavily on athletic directors to report to them any incidents since MHSAA officials are not present at athletics events. Additionally, the association is not in charge of handing down consequences to schools— this also falls on the athletic director of each school, even if someone associated with their school was the instigator.
So in both of these cases, she has to trust her colleagues to take appropriate action.
Athletes at East Lansing have faced racism from other teams for decades. Principal Andrew Wells played basketball and ran track when he went to East Lansing in the early-to-mid 1970s.
“I remember there was a track championship and an individual from a nearby [all-white] school, I had beat him in this particular race,” Wells said. “And he wouldn’t shake my hand… he didn’t say anything to me. He just wouldn’t shake my hand.”
This “stung” Wells, but it wouldn’t be the only time he was treated differently than expected. He heard things being said on the basketball court. It felt like an undercurrent— an energy that wasn’t obvious, but still very noticeable.
While he wasn’t necessarily shocked by the report that came from the game, he thinks it does serve as a good opportunity to learn, reflect and grow as a school community.
Director of Equity and Social Justice at ELPS Klaudia Burton also felt this at athletics events she has attended. As a track and cheer coach, Burton has noticed small acts of discrimination, like looks that are directed at athletes of color.
“I just know from a historical perspective, there’s places that I have a history with,” Burton said. “I don’t feel necessarily comfortable so I’ve always been a little anxious about our students going into those places.”
However, Burton believes there haven’t been any major issues until South Lyon. She expressed horror about the treatment of athletes.
“And I think what our students were subjected to was just absolutely horrendous, you know, to be called vulgar slurs,” Burton said. “You know, just for them, [kneeling, which they] feel deeply and strongly about, and standing up for what they believe in.”
Burton is happy with the response of the athletic department as well as her administrative colleagues. She especially appreciated how thorough the department was with student and parent interviews, as well as the speed with which the department responded overall.
Not all the responsibility falls on the victim though, and Burton thinks districts, where issues occur, could benefit from more education and understanding.
“I think if they are [willing to educate and change] they need to start making the moves to make sure that the [students and community members] and the people who hold positions in their office are understanding of why these issues are a great problem,” Burton said.
And racist actions around the state have not gone unnoticed by the MHSAA or school athletic directors. According to Norris, who is also the president of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA), both the MHSAA and the MIAAA, as well as several other school administrator associations and other organizations, are starting to discuss what can be done. The involvement of non-athletic educational associations is because the issue is not just about athletics, according to Norris. However, it is the MHSAA that is starting to take action, along with ELPS.
“We’re going to meet with the MHSAA about not so much that game, but what can we do going forward to make this better,” Norris said. “You hear the sportsmanship statement at all MHSAA games, [so it’s] what can we do to make sure we’re upholding that for not just our students, [but for] everybody.”
The MHSAA has had an equity committee for a few years according to Norris, and it is now taking an active role in making change following several incidents so far this year, including the South Lyon game, around the state that have received media attention. Combined, the incidents have sparked a conversation between schools and the association.
“We’re going to take this incident and others and work with the MHSAA and actually be an advocate for change, and the leaders in pushing this equity piece forward,” Wells said. “We can work in concert with them to strengthen our efforts.”
Gregory was happy to hear about the efforts being made by both the school and the MHSAA.
“I feel like any team anywhere should be comfortable going into a game, with fair rights, fair calls, and the whole environment,” Gregory said. “It’s bigger than football, but all we can do now is just keep moving forward.”