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Yet another isolated incident: blackface in Ohio pee wee football

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 18 years ago, in 2006, on the World Wide Web.

(Story thanks to Rachel S. @ Alas, a blog (2006-10-26).)

Say, did you ever wonder where all these white college kids come from who are so wilfully stupid, or so openly malicious, that they think that minstrel-show blackface is a great party gag?

The answer is they come from white suburban families who are so wilfully stupid, or so openly malicious, that they think that minstrel-show blackface is an appropriate way to root for their kids’ pee-wee football team and rib the (mostly black) opposing team.

Here’s the story from WKYC Cleveland:

HUDSON — A pee-wee football game between Hudson and Shaker Heights turned into a lesson on racism.

Shaker parents say that Hudson fans, took their team spirit too far. They say those fans became offensive, even racist, because they wore black face and afro wigs.

The parents also claim the Hudson fans beat on frying pans on the sidelines.

Some of the kids on the Shaker team even say they used racial slurs.

It was supposed to be about fun building skills and teamwork. To the seven eight and nine year olds on the Shaker team, the game ended up being about our country’s racist past.

They were calling us ns — the n word, is what one nine year old said.

They shouldn’t say that to other people because they don’t know what it means to us, another player said.

The racial slur was enough to bother these kids but it wasn’t all they faced on the field. There were Hudson fans dressed in black face.

— WKYC (2006-10-25): Pee Wee football game marred by alleged racism

Alleged racism? Whoa, look out there, some fire-eating demagogue has gone so far as to allege that ordinary white people with Midwestern accents and middle-class incomes might be doing something racist when they put on blackface and shout nigger at grade-school black children. Quick, activate the White Denial!

But many parents of the Hudson players told Channel 3’s Mike O’Mara that there was absolutely no intent for any of their fans to be offensive.

Kelly Dine is a parent of a Hudson player.

It was two little boys, not the entire fans, that happened to wear part of the Halloween costume, Dine said. They thought they were supporting their brother on the team.

— WKYC (2006-10-26): More controversy over alleged racism at pee-wee football game; Hudson mayor apologizes

Oh, O.K. I mean, this doesn’t explain away everything. But hey, you’ve got to admit that if it was part of a Halloween costume, then minstrel-show blackface is totally appropriate. Right?

And besides which, we can hardly expect children to have parents, who might have explained to them that racist caricature might not go over so well with a mostly-black football team or their families.

Clearly there is no racism involved here. Didn’t they get rid of that in the sixties, anyway?

O.K., so this isn’t working so well. Better try the Insincere White Apology instead:

Meanwhile, in downtown Hudson, residents are deeply upset about the perception of insensitivity. The banners in the business district proclaim a history of excellence.

… Dine said that she feels very badly if the Shaker parents felt like they were offended.

If two little boys had these wigs on and they perceived that somehow it was an insult against them, it wasn’t. It was truly to support our 8, 9 and 10 year old boys.

— WKYC (2006-10-26): More controversy over alleged racism at pee-wee football game; Hudson mayor apologizes

Oh, man, that I’m sorry you’re offended apology just never gets old. Here’s more from the Cleveland Plain Dealer (via Alas, a blog (2006-10-26)):

[Coach Jeffrey Saffold] said after Sunday's game, he complained to John Elffers, president of the Hudson Hawks Youth Football Association, who sent him a letter apologizing for the fans' actions.

Elffers, however, said the first complaint he heard came Monday when Saffold called him and said parents of Shaker players were offended. Elffers said he doubted supporters meant to be offensive.

Their actions, albeit unwise, foolish and insensitive, were meant to be totally supportive and not intended to insult or offend anyone in any way, Elffers wrote in his letter to Saffold. We regret what occurred and apologize for any righteous indignation these actions may have caused to the coaches, players, parents and family members of the Shaker football organization.

Just out of curiosity, if the blackface and afro wigs weren’t intended to insult or offend anyone in any way, what exactly were they intended to do?

O.K., so maybe that one didn’t work out so well either. Better fire up the White Dissociation, quick:

Liz Murphy has owned the bookstore in downtown Hudson for 23 years.

I want to tell them that we’re not like that, Murphy said. I was horrified.

— WKYC (2006-10-26): More controversy over alleged racism at pee-wee football game; Hudson mayor apologizes

I’m sure that Liz Murphy doesn’t personally feel like that. You might wonder, in light of what just happened, what could entitle her to invoke the royal we, here. But I’ll bet the people who are like that don’t have anything to do with all the good white folk of Hudson. They probably don’t even come from Hudson. I hear they fell into the football game through a wormhole that leads back to their Evil Racist Dimension, where everyone wears a mullet, where everyone speaks in funny accents, and where this sort of things is enjoyed or at least quietly tolerated. Certainly this has nothing to do with the sort of community that the white majority in Hudson, Ohio has built, or the assumptions they share, or the customs they indulge in, or the habits of thought they have fallen into. Nothing to see here, citizen; move along.

The mayor of Hudson, William Currin, said personally I am appalled and saddened by the reported acts. I don’t condone nor will I tolerate such actions. I will be investigating this incident and working with all interested parties to try to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again. Please know that this is an isolated incident and in NO WAY represents the vast majority of the upstanding citizens of Hudson.

— WKYC (2006-10-26): More controversy over alleged racism at pee-wee football game; Hudson mayor apologizes

Sure it’s an isolated incident. Just like all the others.

Further reading:

5 replies to Yet another isolated incident: blackface in Ohio pee wee football Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Dain

    Shaker Heights is an affluent suburb of Cleveland. I don’t know about Hudson. Perhaps this is a case of poor, uneducated whites lashing out?

    Not to excuse it, but I’m wondering if class issues are involved here.

  2. Kris

    I long for the days that things like this surprise me. What is even worse is that these poorly veiled excuses are going to be accepted. Not only will be they accepted but the people that make them, championed.

    And it will be forgotten by the end of the week.


  3. Shannon

    I live near Hudson, and used to live in Shaker. I posted an article on this (not this article)on a local message board and the responses were basically. Oh their making a big deal out of nothing, and the kids are dressing like black hawks and do it all the time. Not a one person on that message board thought that anything was wrong with this. Sad!

— 2013 —

  1. Sarah

    Trust me, Hudson is not a poor town. ( the median income for a household in the city of Hudson is was $112,740. For Shaker, $76,476.)

    I love how the race card is used. No facts…straight to anger. They dressed like this for every game. The “black” coach was in trouble for stacking a team. He wanted to cause a problem in order to get people to forget his wrong doings. There are no facts on name calling. Oh, but no one minds when the people of Hudson took the pads off of their own children and game them to a team that could not afford them. This happened before the dress up incident.

    Read below:


  2. Sarah

    Perhaps no other football games not even the smash-mouth between the Browns and Steelers have caused more pain in Greater Cleveland than those played last month among a few dozen 80-pound boys. No one broke a leg. No one cracked a skull. Yet when the games were over, carnage stretched from Shaker Heights to Hudson the ugly scab of race in America had been ripped off, suddenly and publicly. It started two weeks ago when the coach of a team from Shaker Heights a wealthy, educated, culturally diverse suburb went on local television and claimed that fans and players of a team from Hudson a wealthy, educated, overwhelmingly white suburb were racist. What followed was a firestorm extending far beyond peewee football. It rained down on local schools and cities that had nothing to do with the teams. And it permeated neighborhood gossip and coffee-shop chat as people rethought who they were and who their neighbors might be. How could anyone in history-conscious Hudson a heart of the anti-slavery movement in the 1800s think wearing blackface and afro wigs is OK? Looking for an answer is difficult. Dozens of interviews and e-mail exchanges last week revealed conflicting stories about what led to allegations of racism, not just after the October games, but during the whole football season Shaker Heights’ first in the North Coast Youth Football League, which has 50 teams with 1,200 players ages 7 to 11. The interviews also revealed a kinder side of the Hudson team which, one black coach said, had gone out of its way to make another black team feel welcome. In the end, this is a messy story. It’s layered with people’s fears, biases and experiences. It’s a story about blacks and whites, yet it’s hardly a black and white story. Different day, different outcome Two years ago, as the Cleveland Metropolitan House Authority football team lined up for the league championship, an official approached CMHA Coach Robert Brooks. Not all of his players had full sets of pads. That violated league rules. And whoever didn’t have pads would be disqualified, the official said. Brooks who, like most of the CMHA team, is black thought it was strange timing. His team had money problems and the kids had been sharing pads all season: When players came off the field, they passed on their pads to whoever played next. But before he could break the bad news to the kids, a Hudson coach approached. His team had already played that day and, when he heard some of the CMHA kids faced disqualification, he asked his team’s parents whether they wanted to share their pads with CMHA. They did. Over the next few minutes, mostly white Hudson kids stood alongside mostly black public housing kids, with pads slipping out from under Hudson uniforms and into CMHA’s. Later, when Brooks asked the Hudson coach how to return the pads, the coach said not to bother. CMHA needed the pads, and the Hudson coach said to consider them a donation. “I was really moved, truly,” Brooks, a Cleveland attorney, said last week. He and another black coach in the league, Jerry Primm, said they were stunned by Shaker Heights’ recent allegations of racism, particularly against Hudson. Neither man questioned the validity of the claims, but each pointed out his own experience and that of his team had been far different than that of Shaker Heights. “In the entire [league], we have not received a warmer reception from any predominantly white program than in Hudson,” said Primm, a business machine salesman who coaches a mostly black team from South Euclid. The n-word rears its head Shaker Heights Coach Jeff Saffold said the name-calling started early in October when his team the Raiders, boys 7 to 9 years old played the Hudson Silver Hawks. Saffold, a black Cleveland attorney, didn’t hear the n-word at the game, but a couple of days later the mother of one of his players called. She was upset, saying that a Hudson player had called her son the n-word on the field after a play. The Raiders’ next game was a rematch against the Silver Hawks. Before the game, Saffold said he told his team to tell him if anyone used the n-word. By halftime, his players said at least one of the Silver Hawks had. Saffold said he approached the Silver Hawks’ coach and was pleased by the response. “Their coach said, ‘Tell me who and I’ll snatch their uniform off,’ ” Saffold said. The Raiders never did point out who was saying the n-word, and Saffold said he figured it was isolated: one player on one team causing problems. But then Shaker Heights played the Hudson Black Hawks on Oct. 22 at West Geauga Middle School. It was a miserable fall day: cold, wet and muddy. Trouble erupted during the first half. Umpire Ernie Banks, the only black official at the game, remembers it this way: Saffold broke a huddle with his team and kept coaching them afterward, a no-no under league rules. A referee threw a flag. It was a 15-yard penalty. Saffold was livid. He stopped the game and found the league officer. After a brief talk, the ref’s call stood. Saffold remembers it this way: After a play, he saw one of the Hudson kids push one of his kids’ helmets into the mud. No one threw a flag, and he approached a ref. “The ref wouldn’t even look at me.” Saffold stopped the game and found the league president. He said he told him: “I would not allow myself or the players to be disrespected on the team.” A ref apologized, Saffold said. But tension escalated during half time when Saffold said he noticed some Hawks fans had painted their faces black. They were wearing black afro wigs and yellow beaks. Saffold thought the costumes were racially insensitive at best, outright racist at worst. He approached umpire Banks at the concession stand and asked him what he thought. Banks said he told Saffold the Hawks wear costumes to every game, no matter whether the opposition is black or white. Then, Banks said, Saffold told him the n-word was being tossed around. “That, I care about,” Banks said. But he told Saffold he had never heard it used. After the game, which Shaker Heights won, Saffold found the league president again. “You see that, don’t you?,” Saffold said, pointing at the costumes. At first, Saffold said the president, who is white, didn’t get his point. Then it hit him. “Oh geez,” Saffold recalled the president saying. “I didn’t even think about it. But I see it. And it’s a problem.” By then, Saffold said, some of Shaker Heights’ fans were almost in tears. They had seen the costumes. And at least one parent said she and her niece heard two Hudson fans use the n-word once during the game near the concession stand and another time after the game in the parking lot. Saffold said Shaker Heights had had enough. He and others called the TV stations. Saffold’s wife provided WKYC Channel 3 a snippet of video she took at the game showing kids with black face paint and afros. Channel 3 aired the tape Oct. 25, along with a story about the Black Hawks costumes and allegations that Hudson players and fans had used the n-word. John Elffers, president of the Hudson Hawks organization, apologized during the story. He also issued a statement acknowledging the costumes were “unwise, foolish and insensitive.” By the next morning, Hudson was in an uproar. Both the city and the school district neither of which have any connection to the Hudson Hawks, which is part of an independent league were fielding angry calls. Some demanded that the city and school publicly admonish the behavior. Others wanted to know why Hudson which three weeks earlier had sent each of its 380 third-graders to a two-day seminar on the local history of the Underground Railroad supported a racist team. By noon, the schools posted a statement on their Web site denouncing the claims of racism. It may have soothed some people’s concerns, but it inflamed others. Many parents of Hawks players denied anything racist had occurred. They demanded that the schools pull down the statement and the schools soon did, spokeswoman Shirley Sheatzley said. What followed were several meetings between school officials and angry Hawks supporters. “What I saw at the meeting, honest to gosh, was close to grief,” said Sheatzley, a children’s grief counselor for nine years. “These people wanted to tell their story. They were worried about their kids. They were worried about their reputations,” she said. “It was very personal.” Perception is everything Saffold wasn’t the first black coach in the league to suspect racism. When Robert Brooks first took the CMHA team into the league a half-dozen years ago, he immediately sensed racial bias. Brooks thought the mostly white refs had it out for his mostly black team. And when CMHA lost a playoff game and the league asked them to play in the league super bowl anyway, Brooks was sure it was an olive branch, a way for the league to make up for the refs’ behavior without acknowledging it. But Brooks was wrong, he said last week. The league always invited the losers of the playoffs to the super bowl. The next season, as he watched the refs blow calls for all teams black and white and learned the intricacies of league rules, Brooks said he realized he also had been wrong about the league. When clear-cut racism cropped up, he said, the league tamped it down. As when East Cleveland joined, Brooks said, some of the white suburbs didn’t want to play on East Cleveland’s home fields. They worried about their safety and their cars getting broken into, Brooks said. The league laid down the law: East Cleveland was part of their group and any team that didn’t play on its field would forfeit a game. “It set the tone,” Brooks said, adding that no team forfeited that year. There were also kindnesses extended, particularly by Hudson, Brooks said. When Hudson realized that CMHA kids never had money to eat at the concession stand, it offered the team free hot dogs and soda after every game as a thank-you for traveling so far. Brooks said Hudson also invited CMHA to a pre-season picnic, saying it thought it was important for kids from such different backgrounds to meet. First impressions Why did Shaker Heights have such a different experience? It may never be clear. The Hudson Hawks organization, their supporters and most of the league officials declined to comment for this story. But others familiar with how the season unfolded said that when Shaker Heights joined the league this year, it started off on the wrong foot. It began with allegations of cheating. Most teams are made up of kids who live in the city they represent. Hudson kids play for Hudson. Euclid kids play for Euclid. But only about half the kids playing for Shaker Heights, by most estimates, lived in that city. Other parents and coaches complained Shaker Heights had stacked its four teams with ringers from other cities. Saffold and the other coaches denied cheating. When they entered the league this year, Saffold said, they just brought the teams they had been coaching in the city league the year before. Those teams included kids from outside Shaker Heights, and nothing in league rules prevented it, he said. Ultimately, all four Shaker Heights’ teams made it to the playoffs, clobbering dozens of teams that had grown up in and dominated the league in recent years. Three of the four made it to the league super bowl. Saffold and other Shaker Heights coaches sometimes chalked up their chilly reception as having something to do with race. But others say Shaker Heights wasn’t greeted warmly because many believed Shaker Heights had stolen their league. Some speculate that the sentiment set a course for the rest of the year and that every time something happened disagreements over rules, officiating, perhaps even the Black Hawks costumes Shaker Heights viewed it through a prism of race that other black teams hadn’t. Of course, that does nothing to explain or justify the n-word. Saffold’s team and its fans weren’t the only ones to hear it this season. A kid who plays on another pee-wee Shaker Heights team reported a Hudson player for calling him the n-word, too. “None of us are conspiracy theorists. None of us think we’re being schemed against all of the time,” Saffold said of himself and other Shaker Heights coaches. “But [in this league] we were constantly plotted against.” On Oct. 27, with tension boiling, the North Coast league quietly canceled its super bowl weekend in Newbury Township. People familiar with the decision said some league officials worried there could be a riot in Geauga County. This made Shaker Heights’ coaches chuckle. “The irony is, we did not react violently to what happened to us,” Saffold said. ” We tried to fight bad speech with good speech.” He had hoped it would be a lesson for other kids as they ran across similar obstacles in life. “But the sad part is this: They didn’t do anything wrong, but their super bowl was taken away,” Saffold said. The Raiders still got to play. Since they were supposed to square off against another Shaker team in the league superbowl, they played the game in Shaker Heights. An older Shaker Heights team, the Fire, wasn’t so fortunate. It was scheduled to meet the Hudson Silver Hawks in the super bowl. That clearly wasn’t going to happen in Newbury Township or anywhere else. But Fire Coach Wynn Hines and the Hawks coach kept talking. They were searching for a way past what had happened. “To make it real simple, remember the Titans,” Hines said, in referring to the Denzel Washington movie about a newly appointed black coach and his racially integrated high school team learning to work together. “You have to be able to learn a valuable lesson.” They didn’t get together right away. The Hawks had a pizza party as consolation for the game they missed. The Fire went to the Shaker Heights-Cleveland Heights high school football game and then out to the Boneyard restaurant for food. But sometime before Thanksgiving, when the hoopla has faded, the two teams hope to meet. Without helmets, without pads, without a battle for the ball, they hope to find forgiveness and understanding that is lurking somewhere between the black and the white.

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