Keep your head.
Summit Academy boys’ basketball coach Evric Gray writes that phrase on the whiteboard before almost every game. The slogan sounds like some classic mantra about playing levelheaded, but it’s also shorthand for, “When they yell the N-word at you, stay focused.”
It’s the phrase that Bears point guard Isaiah Green fell back on when he heard “Look at all those N------ out there playing” shouted from the student section behind him at an away game last month. He fought the urge to turn around.
“We get used to it,” he said. “… We don’t want to cause more trouble than what’s already happening by them calling us names and things like that.”
Similar instances of racism in high school sports have occurred throughout Utah for years. This season, in addition to several Morgan High School students yelling obscenities, including the N-word, from the stands when Summit Academy came to town, Mountain Crest students held up a Confederate flag during a game against Ridgeline. Those are just the two events this season that garnered widespread attention.
Green and teammate Jay Gilson, who both are black, can recall exact quotes from the first times they heard fans yell or slur or had those comments relayed to them. For Green, it was at a basketball game last season after he was elbowed and started bleeding on the court. Someone said, “Let that N----- do it himself, let him clean up his own blood.” In Gilson’s case, a person yelled “look at that N-----” as he walked off the football field at halftime this season.
There are two schools in Summit Academy’s region this year where they anticipate hearing racist comments from the stands, according to Green and Gilson. It was the same last season before realignment. Gray also estimated that they hear racist comments during games a couple of times each year.
So before heading to away games in small towns where the vast majority of the population is white, Summit Academy puts extra emphasis on its “Keep your head” motto.
“We have to,” Gilson said. “Because if we don’t, then we know … it would throw us off individually and as a team.”
Four coaches, including Gray, met with the Utah High School Activities Association about a related issue two years ago: the racial bias they perceived in refereeing. The coaches — Gray of Summit Academy, Bobby Porter of Layton Christian, Dan Cosby of Kearns and Jason Workman of Murray — represented Classes 4A and 2A at the time, when 5A was the largest classification.
“I know [racism] is out there,” Cosby said. “But … I think they did a good job by listening to the complaint and then addressing the issue, and that’s all we can ask. … It’s made a difference.”
Porter also applauded the UHSAA for the way it handled the meeting and urged Utahns to focus on the majority of fans who conduct themselves respectfully rather than the minority who are racially insensitive.
“The biggest thing is the progress we’ve made in this state,” said Porter, who has coached at Layton Christian for 17 years and reported he has not heard racial taunts in at least the last three years. ”... Change is a process.”
UHSAA Executive Director Rob Cuff told The Salt Lake Tribune that in response to the coaches’ concerns, the association has addressed racial discrimination in its region meetings under the umbrella of sportsmanship, which is on the agenda for every meeting. Sportsmanship also is a regular agenda item in executive committee meetings.
In addition, schools can “rest” an official, or request that an official no longer officiates their games. Officials likewise can “rest” schools.
“If there’s an official that has … ongoing or recurring issues, then certainly we’d address those,” Cuff said. “And we haven’t had that situation, as far as I know.”
But those efforts don’t stomp out the racist slurs hurled from the stands — cases in which, Cuff said, the UHSAA has to “rely very heavily” on school administrators. The National Federation of State High School Associations rule book deems spectator behavior the responsibility of the “home management” (often an administrator), but referees can issue fouls for supporter interaction that interferes “with the proper conduct of the games.” They also can stop the game if spectators become “unruly” until the home management can regain control.
Cosby and Workman, who now coach in Classes 6A and 5A, respectively, agree that with their travel more concentrated in the Salt Lake Valley, they hear fewer blatantly racist comments than diverse teams like Summit Academy in smaller classifications. Cosby said he hasn’t heard any racial taunts at games since the 2016 meeting with the UHSAA. But that doesn’t mean racial discrimination is confined to small classifications.
“The administrators need to be really on top of it,” Workman said, “because it can happen anywhere.”
While coaches and players interviewed for this story identified small rural towns as the game sites where slurs most often are used, schools accused of racism have taken issue with the generalization.
In 2016, Summit Academy players and coaches said racial slurs were yelled from the crowd during their Class 2A state tournament semifinal game against Emery High School at the Sevier Valley Center in Richfield. The abuse continued into the final, they said. After the Bears took the state title, three Summit Academy seniors reported an encounter at a nearby corner store where, they said, fans in Emery colors again confronted them using profanity and racial slurs.
Emery launched an internal investigation, which rejected Summit Academy’s assertions but acknowledged the possibility of isolated incidents.
Emery Principal Larry Davis released a statement at the time that included the following: “Any school administrator will tell you that there are those few within each student body who maintain less than the highest standards of ethical behavior. To condemn an entire school, school district or rural region because of that is unjustified. Where we have erred, we apologize. Where we have been erred against, that is a matter of personal conscience beyond our control.”
Gray sounds deflated when he talks about recent racism endured by his players after years of this kind of back-and-forth.
When asked what could be done to solve the issue or at least improve the treatment, he said, “It’s always going to be here, you know that. … But my thing is, the referees here, they should do something. Administration, if you hear it, don’t try to cover it up. Do something.”
That was a week after at least one Morgan High School student referred to Gray’s players by a racial slur.
“It was in the heat of the game, toward the end of the game — crunch time — and I heard that comment,” Gilson said about the “Look at all those N------ out there playing” remark. “And me being my race, my blood started to boil.”
Morgan High School acted quickly. The administration put out a statement the next day, Jan. 11, apologizing for the actions of “a few Morgan High School students.”
Morgan athletic director Tyrel Mikesell told to The Tribune that three or four students were involved, and that the N-word, the term “white power” and other vulgar language were used. The administration became aware of the incident when members of the Morgan High community reported it to Mikesell, he said.
“It started a dialogue with parents saying, ‘We need to sit down with our kids and talk to them about these things,’” Mikesell said.
The school administration said in the statement that it had “applied the consequences we feel are necessary to deter this type of behavior.” Citing privacy issues, Mikesell declined to specify the consequences.
The week after the Summit Academy-Morgan game, Mikesell told The Tribune school administrators had begun working with counselors to organize an assembly with leaders from marginalized groups. They also were planning to provide opportunities for students to learn more about tolerance through their adviser program and opportunities for parents to learn how to talk to their children about tolerance.
Mountain Crest students displayed a Confederate flag at a home basketball game against rival Ridgeline on Jan. 19. School administrators confiscated the flag, Cache County District School District Deputy Superintendent Mike Liechty told The Tribune, per UHSAA regulations, which restrict the use of flags and banners by the student section.
He said one to three students were involved, and he estimated the flag was visible for less than two minutes. The students who displayed the flag were given an in-school suspension for part of a school day.
Liechty said a parent of one of the students involved told him it had been meant as a prank.
There are plenty of other more subtle acts of discrimination directed at racial minority players, some intentional and some not.
“The other one that drives me nuts is the ‘USA’ chant,” Gray said, “when all of our kids are from [the United States]. And we all know what that means. It’s just they don’t look like them.”
Green and Gilson said they heard the chant at the state basketball tournament last year, but Emery students most notably used it at the 2016 state tournament. That’s when Emery’s internal investigation confirmed the use of the chant, which Davis then characterized as “inappropriate” but not “racial in nature.”
With incidents like that occurring around the state and country, Gray feels a responsibility to prepare his players to face it. His players have taken mental note of where it happens most often.
“When Isaiah and I walk into a gym in a small town, we feel the tension,” Gilson said.
“When it’s close, that’s what I would say,” Green said. “Things start to get heated, parents start to get mad.”
And that’s when the players try to remember: Keep your head.