Tim Drisdom had been called “blackie.” He’d been called an “a--hole.” He’d been called a “f---ing n-----.” One of his players was called a “b---h” and had derogatory comments about his appearance hurled at him. All this within the span of a month. All this while playing against the same school in two separate locations.
The Intermountain Christian High basketball coach complained to the opposing school’s athletic director. He talked to the principal. He talked to police officers. He tried having transgressors removed.
But, in his mind, not enough was done. No one was being held accountable. Because of that, the behavior was, in effect, condoned.
“There’s disrespect taking place,” Drisdom, a former University of Utah basketball standout, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “No one’s doing anything about it.”
Instances of fans yelling racist slurs during high school basketball games in Utah have been widely documented. Just a couple of years ago, concerns were raised about officials possibly harboring racial biases, prompting a meeting with the Utah High School Activities Association. Coaches have long tutored their minority players about how to rise above it.
Layton Christian coach Bobby Porter, who, like Drisdom, is African American, has been one of those coaches who dealt with racist slurs hurled at his team as motivational fodder. “What we do is we utilize it as gas for our tanks,” he told The Tribune. “We’re motivated by that.”
Yet, even old-school coaches like Porter say the time has come to start ridding Utah’s high school gymnasiums of its uglier elements — much like the Utah Jazz did in issuing lifetime bans to a pair of fans who hurled racial insults at Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook in a two widely reported incidents.
“When people say things that are derogatory, especially to young people, things should happen,” Porter said. “People should be called to the carpet. People should be responsible for their actions.”
It’s not like nothing has been done to try to combat vulgar and racist fan behavior at high school basketball games in Utah, Drisdom said. It’s just that nothing seems to have made a dent. “There’s not been anything of impact done."
A tangle with Tabiona
What prompted Drisdom to go public with this?
ICS played Tabiona High in mid-January. The fan who called Drisdom “blackie” was heard by the the son of the ICS principal, Mitch Menning, Drisdom said. The youth confronted the man, who replied, “Well, he is a Negro, isn’t he?”
After Drisdom learned of the confrontation, he said he contacted Tabiona athletic director Darin Jenkins about what occurred. Drisdom said he left the conversation feeling the issue would be addressed before the next game between the two teams.
But, on Feb. 15, in Tabiona’s gym during the boys junior varsity game, that same fan called Drisdom an “a--hole.” That prompted the ICS coach to seek out Menning, his principal, Jenkins, the Tabiona athletic director., and two police officers to discuss removing the fan from the gym before the varsity game. But the decision was made to let the fan remain, and Drisdom was given the option to cancel the varsity game, which he said he decided against.
Drisdom later was told that one of the police officers present at the meeting stood next to the fan and did not stop him from yelling racist comments. It was then that he determined the situation would remain unresolved.
“I felt like we were just in a helpless situation where if we looked to law enforcement, they’re the guys who also allowed it,” Drisdom said. “When you looked to the administration, they also allowed it by not doing anything about it.”
Things escalated a short time later. During the varsity game, Tabiona fans started jeering at Caleb Koski, Intermountain Christian’s best player. They called him a “b----” and said derogatory things about his looks, according to Drisdom and Koski’s father, Duane. Caleb Kolski, already saddled with a technical foul, responded vociferously toward the fans and was ejected.
At halftime, Drisdom was heckled by some raucous Tabiona fans on his way to the locker room. When one of them raised his hands as if challenging him to fight, the coach acknowledged that he “snapped” and briefly went after the fan.
“At this point, I’ve had enough,” Drisdom said. “I’ve taken the high road this whole period of time. And, for whatever reason, nothing is happening and now it’s affecting our kids.” During the altercation, ICS fans said they heard somebody yell “Get that f---ing n----- out of here.”
Tabiona school officials later apologized for the incident, acknowledging it was their fan who started the problem.
“This incident should never have occurred,” the school said in a statement. “Tabiona High School has worked hard to foster an atmosphere of good sportsmanship and appropriate conduct from players, faculty, and fans.
“We have partnered with the Utah High School Activities Association to ‘raise the bar’ for our sports teams and our fans. We deeply regret the actions of this fan and sincerely apologize to ICS for the offense [he] caused. Unfortunately, this incident [led] to further problems between Tabiona fans and ICS at later games, for which we are deeply sorry.”
Searching for solutions
The UHSAA has been wrestling with the issue of fan behavior for some time, the clash involving Drisdom being just the latest example.
In the past two weeks, both the organization’s bylaws and executive committees have unanimously passed new language that will become policy in the UHSAA handbook.
“The Utah High School Activities Association believes that all individuals should be treated with respect and dignity,” the new language states. “Students should be able to participate in UHSAA-sponsored activities in an environment that is free from racial slurs, racial harassment, and racial discrimination.”
It adds that the UHSAA “disapproves of any form of taunting which is intended to embarrass, ridicule or demean others under any circumstances including on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin.”
The new language will head to the board of trustees on May 7, UHSAA Assistant Director Jon Oglesby said.
The organization does not have a current explicit policy on what constitutes fans breaking the code of conduct, but Oglesby said it has been working on one for the past year. Student-athletes and coaches are set to vote on a new one during next fall’s registration process.
The challenge, the administrator said, is to strike a balance that protects players, coaches and referees from derogatory comments while also protecting free speech.
“It, like many things, unfortunately, just takes time because you have to make sure that you’re not only on the side of people that may be being offended, for instance, through very legitimate means, but you’re also making sure that you’re not infringing on rights that people have to say certain things,” Oglesby said. “That’s a delicate balance. Both are important.”
In response to the ICS-Tabiona confrontation, as well as a “handful” of other sportsmanship-related complaints lodged to the UHSAA this year alone, the organization also will launch a diversity and inclusion committee, Oglesby said. In addition, the sportsmanship committee is working on updating its written materials to include more about offensive speech, he said.
Oglesby added that the UHSAA is looking to fold those messages into a summer summit of member schools that will touch on inclusivity and diversity, and well-known public figures will be involved.
He added that there have been discussions about consequences for those who violate the new sportsmanship policies, up to and including suspensions and other penalties for ejections.
Whether the UHSAA’s efforts will amount to something “impactful” remains to be seen. But Drisdom and Porter believe that even in the heat of competition, something both coaches are intimately familiar with, vulgar and racist insults by fans need to come to an end.
“We have to learn to respect people again,” Porter said.
Drisdom hopes the UHSAA will get tough on transgressors, backing the new language in the handbook with real consequences. He suggests a seasonlong ban for those who violate the code of conduct and a lifetime ban for repeat offenders. He also said fining offending schools would motivate them to do a better job of policing their fans.
The penalties need to be “something with teeth,” Drisdom said. “Nobody likes to spend money. I know that. Most schools don’t have it.”
No more games?
As for the ICS-Tabiona confrontation itself, the UHSAA has scheduled a May 8 hearing to determine how the two schools go forward.
In filing a formal complaint about the incident, Drisdom said he provided a 12-page document detailing what occurred at both basketball games. He said he provided video evidence as well.
Among the possible solutions up for discussion: a temporary or permanent moratorium on games between Intermountain Christian and Tabiona.
Oglesby said such a measure could hinder scheduling in the 1A league the teams compete in, and hinted that there will likely be consequences — both positive and negative — that will occur should such a competition ban take effect. It is not his preferred option.
“We ultimately can’t stop [a moratorium] from happening,” Oglesby said, but he hopes that all sides will look at the bigger picture and not make a decision "in a vacuum.”