Brandon Sears, 15, started playing soccer for Pittsburgh’s Obama Academy this fall. It didn’t take long for an opposing player to call him the n-word.
“I was shocked, but then again, I wasn’t,” he said, "because, knowing that I’m black and he’s white, something happens.”
In the moment, Sears said he was tempted to fight but didn’t, recalling the annual pre-season discussion his coaches led earlier in the semester. More than 70 percent of students at Obama are black, and the school’s athletic teams are among the most racially diverse in the region.
“Usually the only thing that we can do is ask the players to try to be the bigger person, which is a very unfair request,” Obama Soccer Assistant Coach Christopher Thyberg said. “To tell them, ‘Hey, you’re gonna get racially abused, but you have to not respond to it.”
Although it’s not a new issue, local athletes, coaches, parents and administrators say they still struggle with how to address race, especially in a charged political climate.
Controversies over race in professional sports garnered national attention in September when President Donald Trump criticized NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. Even the Steelers weren't immune.
The same weekend, Pittsburgh’s Perry High School football team took on Brooke High School in Wellsburg, W.Va. Students at Brooke, which is 97-percent white, unfurled a red, white and blue banner across their student section declaring “TRUMP PERRY,” with the President’s recognizable mop of yellow hair drawn over his name.
The game itself was fairly quiet; Perry lost 34-20 and came home. But the next day, Perry librarian Sheila May-Stein posted the image to Twitter declaring it a racist avowal.
For many visitors from Perry, where more than 75 percent of students are black, the sign was insensitive and even intimidating. Some said it invoked the name of a President who has exploited racial resentments in the U.S. and, thus, emboldened white-supremacist groups.
Students from Brooke responded that it was just a play on the President’s name, which also means “to beat” or “defeat.” Brooke administrators later apologized for the sign.
On the field, it's the nature of competition to take some cheap shots to get into your opponent’s head, explained 17-year-old Ian Thomas, who is white, and captains the boys’ soccer team at Obama.
“What would happen is, I mean, the kid starts talking, he starts talking in his ear. We’re in a corner kick, like the very beginning of the game. And then, it just kind of ramps up, gets more and more intense as the game goes on,” said Thomas. “Elbows are getting thrown. Kids are stomping. They’re like, cleating each other intentionally, tripping each other.”
But to inject race into the situation, his instincts tell him, crosses the line. Thomas said his teammates of color are targeted far more often than he is, both verbally and physically.
“You get on the field. Your mindset changes. You get a little more intense, and it gets aggressive,” Thomas said. “But, I question if it would be different with players of color that are on the team. Would [other players] be so kind to them outside of the field as they might be to me?”
— Sheila May-Stein (@smaystein) September 23, 2017
When Sears, Thomas' teammate, was first called a slur by another player, he was angry and used music to try to stay motivated for his next game. He said he’d rather forget about the whole issue, but it still bothers him.
“It does happen a lot. And that’s the sad part about it,” Sears said. “You’re not there to call people names. You’re there to compete.”
Larry Davis, dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Social Work, shares Sears’ disillusionment. Davis, who is also black, has devoted his career to studying race and social justice.
“I’m disappointed that sports hasn’t seemed to help race relations very much,” Davis said.
Rather, Davis noted, race has always been an issue for black athletes in the U.S.
When the black heavyweight champion Jack Johnson defeated white boxer Jim Jeffries in what was dubbed “the fight of the century” in 1910, for example, race riots broke out all across the country. And when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record in 1974, he received thousands of death threats.
The performance of black athletes, Davis said, is often perceived as a challenge to white masculinity.
“It’s for, sort of, dominance of who’s the better group. I mean, I hate to put it that way, but that’s kind of what it’s about,” he said.
Yet Davis said racism might actually be worse if it weren’t for sports and their ability to facilitate interaction across racial and ethnic lines.
Thyberg recalled a game where one of Obama’s white players joked that a foul against a teammate of color must have been racially motivated. Another player on the bench, Thyberg said, made it a teachable moment.
“He wasn’t rude or mean-spirited, but he called him out on it and said, ‘Why is that funny to you?’ and had this exchange where he was able to say like, ‘It’s not funny when this is happening to me on the field,’” the coach said. “After that, I didn’t see it happen again.”
Obama is one of about 140 teams in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League, or WPIAL, which spans nine counties and includes schools as far away as Laurel Highlands, Leechburg, and New Castle.
This fall, the league was forced to confront the issue of race after Ellwood City’s Lincoln High School traveled from a rural district with a 90 percent white student population to play Valley High School, one of the WPIAL’s most racially diverse teams. With less than two minutes remaining, the game erupted into a bench-clearing brawl.
Valley’s coach and superintendent said their athletes were provoked. They alleged that Lincoln players called their students racial slurs throughout the game and filed formal complaints with the WPIAL's parent organization, the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.
The resulting controversy and a rise in unsportsmanlike behavior in general prompted the WPIAL to send a letter condemning the practice to its member schools in early October. The letter noted that reports of racially-insensitive comments had “become all too common.”
“Kids think it’s appropriate to trash talk,” WPIAL Executive Director Tim O’Malley said. “Unless somebody tells them that this isn’t appropriate, they’re going to keep doing it.”
O’Malley said educators and families must take the lead in correcting this behavior.
“How do you put an end to it?” O’Malley said. “From an educational standpoint, there’s a responsibility to try to continue to work with the kids in your schools, with your children to make sure that they understand what is and what isn’t acceptable.”