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Outside the Lines: Football, Race, and the Power of One Word

Outside The Lines - Football, Race, and the Power of One Word

Announcer - June 4, 2000.

Bob Ley, Host - Time passes slowly in Wildwood, Florida. Here, old attitudes survive. And high school football is the greatest source of civic pride.

But when the head coach addressed a player with a racial epithet, football pride collided with race. Long simmering issues gripped and divided this town.

T.H. Poole, Florida NAACP - There's really a plantation mentality surrounding Wildwood High School.

Gary Hughes, Head Coach Football, Wildwood High School - It's not just a lesson in what not to say. It's a lesson on how you do your job but not to lose sight.

Charles Smith, Football Tri-Captain, Wildwood High School - I love football. I don't see no problem with playing for Coach Hughes.

Ley - Today on OUTSIDE THE LINES, football, race and the power of one word.

Announcer - OUTSIDE THE LINES is presented by 1-800-CALLATT. Joining us from ESPN studios, Bob Ley.

Ley - It is the most toxic word in the American vocabulary, igniting anger, passion and controversy. It's referred to as an epithet, or especially since the O.J. Simpson trial as the "N" word. And you will hear it this morning through the mouths of people both black and white. And you will see through their eyes the impact of that one word.

As the "New York Times" observes in its lead editorial this morning, most Americans, especially whites, do not like to share their personal feelings on race. But these private attitudes lie at the heart of the racial question, determining how we get along.

If race remains the most divisive issue in American life, then sports does provide a place where we do come together, even if only superficially and until the final whistle so that when the realities of race and the anguish caused by this one word intrude into sports' comfortable world, emotions are drawn all the more sharply, anger met by befuddlement, contrition answered with silence.

As Jeremy Schaap reports, all of this is in the raw echo of a single word, a word with the power to change lives.

Jeremy Schaap, ESPN Correspondent (voice-over) - There's nothing big time about rural Wildwood, Florida, except its football. The population is only 3,400.

But two Wildwood High School graduates are in the NFL. And dozens more have played at the Division One level in college.

Friday nights in Wildwood aren't much different from Friday nights in Western Pennsylvania or West Texas or anywhere where high school football is a primary source of pride.

The biggest Friday night of the year in Wildwood is the Friday night every fall when the Wildcats play their arch rivals, the South Sumter Raiders. Last November 5, the Wildcats lost 19 to 18 on a field goal in the fourth quarter.

Larry Lawrence, Assistant Football Coach, Wildwood High School - Well, basically it was a long night. We were unhappy. Things come out sometimes.

Schaap - What came out has haunted Wildwood ever since. Disgusted with the loss, Coach Gary Hughes lashed out at tackle Cliffton Peeples, directing at him an ugly racial slur. Hughes says Peeples had just violently thrown his equipment to the locker room floor.

Hughes - Him doing that caught my attention. And when I turned and wheeled, that's when I told him, "I want you to stop acting like a street nigger."

Clifton Peeples, Former Football Player, Wildwood High School - I didn't understand the statement because I just said, "I didn't do anything." He said, "I'd better not see you out there looking like a street nigger again." You know, it stunned me.

Randy Hepburn, Former Assistant Football Coach, Wildwood High School - He looked over at Cliffton Peeples in this manner with his hand pointing with one of the angriest attitudes that I have ever seen a man with looking at this kid. And he goes at him like, "Cliffton Peeples, where in the hell do you get this acting like a street nigger?"

Hughes - I realized that I crossed the line at that point. So I paused and told them, "Guys, if I've offended you for what I said, I'm sorry." Because I don't know, not being black and hearing the word all the time used, I didn't know if I was overreacting or under-reacting. But I did know this. The proper thing to do would be to tell him that you didn't mean it the way it came out, as blatant maybe or hurtful maybe as it could have been.

So I told him, "I'm sorry. You know how I'm emotional. I shouldn't have said that."

Lawrence - We forgave him. We understood that it wasn't meant as a racist statement, that it came out, and it shouldn't have came out. But the apology and the healing was done that evening, that Friday night.

Peeples - He went on with his conversation with the team and then sent everybody home. And I stayed and watched the game film. And he came up to me in the room and he said, well, he didn't say it - it didn't come out the way he meant it.

Hughes - I saw Cliffton, and I went up and put my arm around him and I said, "You know, Cliffton, I'm sorry about that. I want you to be the way you can. I don't want you to act like you're being - like you're unloved, like nobody cares about you, because we do care about you. We want you to be the very best that you can."

And he looked right at me, he said, "Coach, I understand."

Peeples - I didn't say anything. I didn't have anything to say. He tried to apologize then, but I just left and went home.

Hughes - And from that point on, I didn't worry about it. I had made peace with the people that I had offended and peace with Cliffton. And he said that he understood.

Peeples - He never actually said I'm sorry. He said it didn't come out the way it sounded.

Schaap (on camera) - Still, the next day, Peeples' mother Gwen Johnson sensed that something was troubling her son, something beyond the loss to South Sumter. He told her what Coach Hughes had said to him in this locker room.

She in turn told her son's story to a local representative of the NAACP. And by Monday morning, nearly everyone in Wildwood knew what had happened.

James Catlett, Principal, Wildwood High School - I brought Coach Hughes in and started my investigation, brought the kids in, many of the kids that were in the locker room. And I proved that he actually said it to the young man. And I said - I reported it to the superintendent.

Schaap (voice-over) - The superintendent suspended Hughes for five days without pay, but not until the end of the football season, infuriating some blacks in the community who were demanding that Hughes be fired as football coach.

Three days after the suspension was announced, several black players sat out Wildwood's first round playoff game, which the Wildcats won. Gwen Johnson was among those protesting Hughes' continued presence on the sidelines.

Gwen Johson, Mother of Clifton Peeples - He said he could not promise me he wouldn't say it again is what he said to me.

Unidentified Male - To your face.

Johnson - To my face.

Schaap - Hughes says Johnson took him out of context.

(on camera) - Well, let me ask you now...

Hughes - OK.

Schaap - ... will you ever use that word again?

Hughes - No. No.

Schaap - Why didn't you just tell her that?

Hughes - Because I wanted to be honest with her. If you - and you can't fully understand because you weren't there. But if I'm going to be sincere and completely honest, if it came down to Cliffton Peeples being in such an awful situation that would cause tremendous - I mean, if he were to go down a road of horror, would you do that for my son? Would you save his life - if saying that would save his life, would you say it again?

And I say yes, I would save his life to say that. And it wreaks shame on me.

Practically, how does that work out? Would you say it again? No.

Schaap - Are you suggesting you used that slur, directed it at him in that locker room that day, to help him?

Hughes - Exactly. Exactly.

Schaap - How could that help?

Hughes - A guy told me, who is a minister, he said, "Choosing the exact words of a sermon is absolutely critical to the sermon. If you don't speak to the audience on their own level, they miss the message."

He told me that. He said, "That's what you've done."

Peeples - That doesn't help me. It put a lot of anger and hurt in my heart. I don't see how that helps. I don't see how that would help anyone by downgrading them first.

Poole - You can't help a black man by calling him a nigger. That's disgraceful.

Schaap - T.H. Poole has lived in central Florida for 50 years. He is Coach Hughes' most vocal critic.

Poole - The main thing is his presence on that campus is dangerous, is disruptive, and it's unfair to ask those kids to be under his supervision.

Ley - All of that in the wake of the utterance of one word.

In a moment, we shall see why some townspeople were willing to accept the coach's apologies and others clearly were not, how one word had called in question a man's entire life.

Hughes - You change it right now. Don't tell me you can't go out there and play better man for man and as a team. Don't tell me you can't play better because you know deep down inside you can.

Ley - That one word echoed for months in Wildwood. T.H. Poole led an effort by some black citizens to have Gary Hughes fired as football coach, but not fired from his teaching position. That decision from Principal Jim Catlett was due the last week of May.

As the day drew near, people in town were living not only with the memory of the incident, but the questions and emotions of those subsequent months. Once again, Jeremy Schaap.

Schaap (voice-over) - Just days after Gary Hughes uttered the slur, Cliffton Peeples, who says he had dreamed of playing college football, dropped out of Wildwood High School. He has since married and moved to Orlando. He says he's still waiting for Hughes to reach out to him.

Peeples - It would have made a big difference to me if he would have showed me he was sincere about his apology. Just saying "I'm sorry" wasn't good enough.

Schaap - Unlike Peeples, most of the Wildwood players who sat out the first playoff game returned to play the next week. And in the months since, the outrage in the black community seems to a large degree to have vanished.

Lawrence - We had a banquet last week. We had a good support from the black community was there.

Smith - I forgave him the night that he said he was sorry.

Schaap - Others have not. A handful of players said they wouldn't play for Hughes and would transfer if he remained coach. Randy Hepburn, the volunteer assistant coach who quit the team eight days after the incident also wants Hughes relieved of his coaching duties.

But even Hepburn, whose son played for Hughes, says he believes the coach is not a racist.

(on camera) - Your son played for him.

Hepburn - Right.

Schaap - You coached for him.

Hepburn - Right.

Schaap - Did he ever treat you with anything less than respect?

Hepburn - No he didn't. No he didn't.

Lawrence - A racist person, I can say I would know a racist person by how he works with you, how he talks to you, and relationship - how he relates his family with you. You know, I coach his son in baseball. I've been to his house. He trusts his kids around you. A racist person just wouldn't go that far with anyone.

Schaap (voice-over) - Blacks and whites who support Hughes point to a moment three years ago captured on this police cruiser videotape when Hughes administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a black 7-year-old who had been struck by lightning.

Smith - He can't be racist. If he was racist, he wouldn't have gave that little boy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Plus, he wouldn't be looking out for me the way he do.

Tyson Weaver, Football Player, Wildwood High School - To me, he's not a racist. All I have known him to do was coach right and just try to get you better and make you better and everything.

Schaap (on camera) - He treats black players and white players the same?

Weaver - Same. All I've seen is the same.

Schaap - Why should people in this community believe you are not a racist?

Hughes - I think my life as a whole can somewhat attest to the fact that I do not favor one person or another based on skin color. It's just something - I try to look at the heart and try to look at the things that are inside you, and not the things that are exterior, not the talk, the walk. And that's the way I've done for 18 years.

Schaap - So you're saying your actions have never been racist. But in this one instance, you used a racist term.

Hughes - That is correct. That is absolutely correct.

Schaap (voice-over) - T.H. Poole, who's spent much of his life fighting racism, says even one instance is too many.

Poole - That's the ultimate when you say that to black people. There's nowhere to go. And in their policy it says that you can be punished up to and including dismissal for a racial slur.

Schaap - Catlett announced last Tuesday via fax to the local media that Hughes would be invited back. The announcement referred only to Hughes' football accomplishments and ignored the incident with Cliffton Peeples.

Poole - That's the name of the game in Wildwood, just the football team. Educational programs, no, that's not important.

Catlett - You're in a catch 22 situation. I can't satisfy everybody. And I feel like I need to look at the school and the program we have first and the kids. And hearing from the kids, I think they totally support the decision also.

Poole - There's really a plantation mentality surrounding Wildwood High School. As long as he happens to be white and the victim is black, then there's not going to be any justice.

Hughes - I just want an opportunity to regain some trust and start over. That's really all I want. Same way as when I walked in there the very first day. They didn't know anything about me yea or nay, and I'd like to have the same opportunity again.

Schaap (on camera) - So after nearly six months of rancor and recriminations, Gary Hughes still has his job. It may take much longer for this community to heal.

For OUTSIDE THE LINES, I'm Jeremy Schaap.

Ley - And when we continue, a conversation I had earlier with a local minister who has coached at the high school and a man active in community affairs in Wildwood, Florida.

Hughes - All they're doing is leaning on you, leaning on you. You've got to change the line of scrimmage, guys. Come on, Ed. Come on, Ed. They're looking at you walking. And they're saying, "We got 54 whipped because he ain't there."

Ley - And we are joined today by two guests. They join us in the city of Oxford, Florida, just down the road from Wildwood.

The Reverend Darryl Strickland has coached athletics at Wildwood High School. Two of his sons have graduated from that school. His wife currently teaches in the school system. And Mr. Joseph Foster is active in community affairs in the city of Wildwood.

Mr. Foster, let me begin with you. Coach Hughes keeping his job. He will continue as football coach. What does that mean to the town?

Joe Foster, Wildwood Civil Rights Leader - That means a lot. I mean, we would have wished that he would have at least been moved from his coaching position. But that didn't happen.

And it just happened. So we have to decide what we need to do from here.

Ley - What do you think that might be?

Foster - I'm not really sure. We haven't been able to get together as a community since the ruling was made Tuesday. It was kind of short notice. But we're working on some things I think.

Ley - Reverend Strickland, the decision in your eyes to keep the coach?

Reverend Darryl Strickland, Oxford Assembly Of God Church - If Coach Hughes was a racist or a prejudice man, I would be the first to say let's get rid of him. But I worked with Coach Hughes for several years - and what he did and said was wrong - but the situation is that for three years, he's been an excellent coach, a good friend to the kids.

And I feel like the benefit of the doubt should - not necessarily saying that we approve of what he did, by no means - but to keep him as a coach because in all honesty I don't know where we could get a better coach or a better man and role model for our kids.

Ley - Mr. Foster, this is about much more than one word then, isn't it?

Foster - Yes, I think it is. You know, a lot of it has to do with the attitude. You know, go back to say the word nigger. And N-I-G-G-A is what most black young youths use today. It's two different words.

N-I-G-G-A is one word. And N-I-G-G-E-R is a totally different word.

And N-I-G-G-E-R in the dictionaries, if I'm correct, is a lowdown dirty person. And I don't think Cliffton is a lowdown dirty black person. And I don't think I'm a lowdown dirty person.

Ley - Reverend, what else do you think that Coach Hughes can do to try and convince people of good will, as you seem to think that Coach Hughes is, that he is sincere in his apology? Tried to have a barbecue. Had a second barbecue. Had a get-together in town. What else can he do, must he do?

Strickland - I'm not sure that there's too much more he could do. As far as the community, just because what Mr. Foster brought out is totally strange to me. I didn't know that there was a difference between the two words.

And growing up in the south, it was a word that was not used derogatory in my language or people around me. It just referred to black people. And of course, we've tried to lay that aside. But I do think that we do need to have some education between the two and some rapport between the two.

And several years ago, I asked to try to form a committee to address the race issue and see if there's something that we could do so we can understand the problem between the races because Martin Luther King, Jr., made the statement, "We can either live as brothers. Or we can die as fools." And I think we really need to live as brothers instead of dying as fools.

Ley - Final question for both of you gentlemen. Reverend Strickland, what has the town of Wildwood learned about itself from all of this?

Strickland - Well, I hope that good can come out of it. And I have seen some good. And I've certainly seen some bad.

Don't want to play it down. But hopefully it will show the need for us to get together and diligently seek out some answers because as Foster said, our ways of understanding and seeing things are totally different.

And we need to see the other side. And we can't do that - and I agree with him. We need to talk to the parents and have some rapport between us so that we can see the other side and understand a little bit more of what our feelings are.

Ley - Mr. Foster, what have you learned?

Foster - I think that if this issue ever dies down, and when it dies down, that there's still going to be a culture gap. And there's going to be no race communications once this is over.

This is a thing that has brought up and has made it a heated conversation in Wildwood. And as soon as this is over, the two communities, the black and the white community, are going to be separate just like they were before. And until another issue comes up where something of this nature is going to - it's going to continue to be like this.

Ley - All right, gentlemen, we'll leave it at that. Thank you very much for joining us today. Reverend Darryl Strickland and Mr. Joseph Foster on the topic of one word and the seven months since in the town of Wildwood, Florida.

We'll continue in just a second on OUTSIDE THE LINES as we continue.

Ley - Last week, we considered the safety of players and fans in the wake of the incident at WrigLey Field, Dodger players going into the stands and the suspensions of 16 Dodger players. Our e-mail reaction was spirited.

A New Jersey viewer calling ballpark security "distorted, mostly focused on the upper deck and bleachers, not the so-called corporate seats by the field. Had WrigLey Field and other parks distributed the security personnel more evenly, some of these problems may have been eliminated."

From New Hampshire, "When money starts coming out of owners' pockets, things will change and security beefed up. Frank Robinson needs to punish the Cubs for the security around the bullpen, suggesting a $50,000 fine would increase all baseball security. Violent incidents in the stands will be reduced to almost nothing."

A Bay Area viewer doesn't believe the commissioner is doing anything at the new ballparks. Quote, "I've been at the new ball park," meaning Pac Bell, "I was able to get in both times without getting my backpack checked. That never happened at Candlestick. Also, I saw people smoking drugs. And I did not see any security people approaching those people, nor any security around at all."

From the lawyer representing one of the Cubs fans arrested in that WrigLey incident, wonderment that the media have used the event to discuss the issue of fan misconduct and alcohol abuse rather than players committing crimes. Quote, "Despite the obvious criminality of the Dodgers' conduct, this event has strangely become a catalyst for the Cubs in baseball to reassess rules about alcohol sales.

"While there may be a need, this incident is not the reason for it. There is no evidence that any fan involved in this incident was drunk or had any alcohol. And there is no history at WrigLey Field that would cause anyone to believe that fan misconduct is the issue here," end quote.

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 ESPN's Bob Ley is joined by Rev. Darryl Strickland and Joseph Foster to discuss high school football and race.
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