This is the one word message my 11-year-old recently received from a classmate when he logged in to his X-box Sunday night. This was the exclamation point that ended an emotional weekend for our family.
Saturday began with something I look forward to every week: Saturday league basketball. My 11-year-old son is playing basketball for the first time this year and to my proud-dad-surprise he’s really good. All week-long I look forward to him playing point guard, calling the plays, setting picks, and more importantly than seeing his athletic talent, I cherish the opportunity to see the leader in him rise. There is an intense joy I get out of seeing him dribble down the court yelling, “ICE, ICE,” to set up the next offensive play.
On this Saturday, it began as it normally does but during the first quarter of the game I noticed our coach call over the referees during a timeout and they had what looked like a serious conversation. Then the refs called over the other coach and had a conversation with him. It was one of those snap shots that looking back on it I know what it was but during that time it only stands out as odd; out of the ordinary.
As the game continued snap shots of odd continued to happen. I saw our coach having private conversations with my son during the game followed by the instructions, “Calm down.” We sat across the court from their bench so I could only piece together what was going on through body language and reading lips. The instructions to my son, “calm down” continue and I assumed he is getting upset because the score was getting out of control and the chances that they would catch up became more slim with each passing minute.
In the fourth quarter with about 2 mins left, the leading scorer on the other team got the ball near half court and my son ran after him ignoring the ball and with both hands extended pushed the other player. Hard!
“CLICK.” The odd snap shots continued.
My son was called for a technical foul and his coach sits him on the bench for the remaining two minutes in the game. After the final buzzer sounded, my son made the long walk across the court to where my wife and I were sitting. His shoulders were bowed from what I assumed is the weight of the fresh loss. I was crafting how I would tactfully and calmly rip in to him for what I saw as a malicious and senseless foul that he committed at the end of the game. He sat next to me on the bleachers and his shoulders have caved in and his chest begins to expand and contract with the sobs that are coming from his defeated frame. My angry-disappointed dad stance is replaced by my compassionate-dad concern and I ask him what is wrong.
“They kept calling me nigger during the game.” He says in between his sobs.
“Who?” The angry dad in me asked.
My son tells me the one player who called him this five or six times during the game. I asked why he didn’t say anything and he tells me he told his coach early in the game.
Those odd snap shots immediately come back to me. The conversation with the refs, the refs’ conversation with the other team, the picture of the coach mouthing to my son to calm down. It all was a result of my son being called a nigger.
By this time, everyone has cleared the court but the offending opponent, his father, and their coach. They stood directly across from me on the edge of the court. I walked over to the tirade and with each step across the court the calm logic that I told myself was to conduct this conversation drained from me with each step and was replaced with rage. By the time I reached the three clear logic was burned out of me.
I tell the three to hold on and I turn to the 11-year-old who called my son a nigger and direct the conversation at him. ” Call my son a nigger one more time…”
The rage has erased from my memory how I finished that sentence or if I ever finished the sentence. The boy’s father objected to the way I was yelling at his son and the father and I go back and forth. The security guard came over and got in between us. The presence of the extra party temporarily calls back the rational dad in me and I walk away.
As I am walking away the father loudly states, “C’mon this is only a 5-6 grade basketball game. It’s not that serious.”
This comment awakens the rage that had receded not only in myself but now in my wife. I turn around and loudly state, “Once your son called my son a nigger this became so much more than a 5-6 grade basketball game.” By then my wife was screaming at this man and there is no way he can respond. He has awoken the verbal MMA fighter in my wife and all he can do is tap out.
I grab my son and we walk out of the gym and out of the school. As the cold February air hits me I’m sure steam is rising from my skin. As the steam escapes so does the rage.
S l o w l y.
The next day, the child whose father assured me on the basketball court that his son didn’t call my son a nigger sent my son this message via X-box.
This is now the third time this school year my son has been called a nigger and with each offense I picture the scars that are created with the utterance of the word nigger towards my son. It frustrates me that now my son has been called nigger more than I was at that age growing up 33 years ago. It darkens my heart to realize I have said nigger more in the last year than I have in the last ten years.
I met with the school superintendent, spoke to the police, spoke to the principal of the school and talked to the commissioner of the basketball league. I told them how my heart aches because my son did everything right. When the offense occurred he told an adult and the adults failed him. They failed to act and because the boy continued to call him a nigger throughout the game my son decided to handle it, because the adults had refused to do anything. The true tragedy was that the offender was given the privilege to finish the game and the offended was pulled from the game.
The deep messages that this one Saturday sends will take me a while to scrub away.
In speaking with official after official never did I say, “the n word.” My children don’t get the benefit of the kinder, gentler version of the word and when telling others it’s important to me that they hear and feel the uncomfortable impact of the word. Saying “the n word, ” helps many to continue to believe we live in a post-racial society because we don’t hear nigger anymore. Nigger is alive and well and my children hear it from other children on a regular basis.