The Back Road: Shameful taunting at high school basketball game

The Back Road: Shameful taunting at high school basketball game

Andrew Malekoff

This past Feb. 9 marked one of the most repulsive displays of fan behavior at a high school athletic contest that I can recall. The incident occurred in Rockland County at Pearl River High School. The occasion was a varsity basketball game in which Pearl River was hosting Nyack High School.

A video shared via Twitter showed fans in the Pearl River student section making loud monkey noises as Black Nyack players shot free throws.

I viewed the video. The sounds they made were clear, unambiguous and racist. No interpretation was necessary. They were repeated at least three times during the game, with no apparent game-time intervention taken to address the behavior that everyone clearly witnessed.

This was the fourth documented occurrence of bias this academic year at Pearl River High School, according to a Feb. 11 report in Rockland County’s Journal News.

Pearl River Superintendent Marco Pochintesta confirmed that, one week earlier, there was similar abuse from the Pearl River student section during the Jan 28 game against Suffern High School. Earlier incidents of bias at Pearl River High School involved damaging LGBTQ+ pride symbols on school grounds.

Pearl River school district is almost 2% Black (30 students), 16% Hispanic or Latino and 81% white, according to New York State Education Department data.

Nyack schools, one of the region’s more diverse districts, is 16% Black, 36% Hispanic or Latino and 46% white.

Although Rockland County leans slightly to the left, Pearl River leans decidedly right, with Donald Trump having received 81.5% of the total votes cast in Pearl River in the 2020 presidential election.

Despite political differences there has been some bipartisan condemnation of the student behavior, at least publicly.

Republican Assemblyman Michael Lawler, whose district includes Pearl River and part of the Nyack school community, said that he supports efforts to hold wrongdoers accountable for their “abhorrent behavior,” as well as steps to ensure that it does not happen again.

“We must speak in one voice,” he asserted, “and make it clear that what occurred at the basketball game is unacceptable, wrong and will not be tolerated.”

I first met the new Nyack School Superintendent Eudes Budhai when he worked in the Westbury School District. I reached out to him to express my concern with the events of Feb. 9.

He has asked the Pearl River School District for a full investigation and report. He told me how unfortunate a circumstance this is and that he intends to ensure that his students’ emotional well-being is addressed.

In a more formal statement on behalf of the school district Mr. Budhai stated, “We stand firmly and resolutely with our student-athletes in the wake of the racist and reprehensible behavior displayed by members of the Pearl River community. This incident,” he added, “is especially disheartening during Black History Month, a time when we unite as a school community to celebrate the achievements of all Black Americans. It reveals the need for ongoing work to dismantle systemic racism in schools.”

Feb. 9 also happens to be my younger brother Bob’s birthday. Although we live almost 600 miles apart, a birthday call and conversation are routine.

His career has been devoted to athletic coaching, administration and education. Most recently, Bob taught at the University of North Carolina’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science. Years earlier, he was director of research for the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.

Given his lifetime commitment to the healthy development of student-athletes from all walks of life, I asked him for his thoughts.

Bob said: “It’s easy to second guess but given the fact that Pearl River officials were already investigating alleged behavior of this nature from a previous game, I can’t help but wonder why they seemingly chose not to make clear to students that behavior of this nature was unacceptable and would lead to meaningful consequences. Why was there no plan implemented by Pearl River administration that called for greater oversight of fan behavior at subsequent Pearl River games?”

“This is not to say,” he added, “that it would have been easy to identify those students making the racially charged noises but moving forward with no game-day response all but guarantees a continuation of this sort of abusive behavior, and the real possibility of fan violence.”

I would like to think that the visceral nature of the racist taunts at the basketball game would have been enough to coalesce all people of goodwill to stand up against such behavior. Yet, there were likely bystanders, youth and adults, who thought it was okay and others in attendance who did nothing but provide silent assent.

What emboldened the culprits to think this was acceptable behavior? What prevented those who sat in silence from finding their voice?

These are fundamental questions we all face increasingly every day.

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