Despicable words by Southern Miss band members at NCAA tournament lead to ‘teachable moment’
HATTIESBURG, Miss. – They were but four words.
Four words chanted in the giddy euphoria of the first half of the first Thursday NCAA tournament game. Four words designed more to distract than torment. Four words that must have rolled so innocently from the mouths of five members of Southern Miss’ band as Kansas State point guard Angel Rodriguez prepared to shoot a free throw.
Where’s your green card?
Sitting no more than 30 feet from them in Pittsburgh’s Consol Energy Center, I did a double-take.
Where’s your green card? What kind of chant was that? At halftime, I reported it on Twitter: “Lowest moment in bad first half of KSt-SoMiss: So Miss band chanting “where’s your Green Card” to KSU’s Angel Rodriguez”
A few other writers sitting near me did the same. Suddenly, responses poured in. Shock. Anger. Hate. Someone posted a clip of Rodriguez shooting his free throws during which the chant could be heard. And before its first-round loss to Kansas State was complete, Southern Miss had become the most racist school in the tournament.
But then Southern Miss apologized. And apologized again. And yet again. Then it announced that the five students had been dismissed from the pep band. It said their $400 band scholarships had been revoked. It said those five would undergo diversity training. The administrator announcing the discipline, Joe Paul, the vice president of student affairs, called the incident “a teachable moment.”
Wednesday, I drove the two hours from the Final Four in New Orleans to meet Paul and see just what had been learned.
“In reality, you can’t un-ring the bell,” Paul said as he sat in a conference room outside his office. “All we can do as an institution is say you have to own it and take responsibility for it.”
This is why he said it was important to react quickly. Beside him was the dean of students, Eddie Holloway, a black man who conducted the diversity training in one two-hour session a few days ago. Together, they said the students in the band understood the explosiveness of their words.
“An awareness,” Holloway called it.
Across the table sat the current and incoming student body president and vice president, along with the incoming student attorney general. The five of them represented a diversity they say is indicative of the school: three black, one Hispanic, one Jewish.
Each seemed to believe the school had reacted correctly. Each also worried that the resulting media storm had unfairly painted them with an image they didn’t recognize.
“I know the culture of our campus; that’s not how our university is,” said Jazmyne Butler, the incoming student president. “We shouldn’t be seen in that light.”
“When I went back to the dorm, a lot of students were upset,” said Don Holmes, the incoming attorney general who learned of the chant while at the barber shop that afternoon. “But they were upset that this would be the image of Southern Miss.”
For a few days after the first weekend of the tournament, they said the chant was the discussion around campus. Yet the concern was not about the punishment received or that a racial conflict would arise, but rather that decades of good work at creating diversity had been destroyed in the time it took to shout four words in a half-filled arena hundreds of miles away.
The state of Mississippi has its history of racial problems. It’s a history that makes the state an easy target when race is discussed. But it’s also a place where, like much of the rest of the country, each new generation inches farther away from the divisive past.
When told of a column that appeared in The Nation linking the band members’ chant with a racial profiling bill making its way through the Mississippi legislature, Holmes, who is black, shook his head.
“I want him to come to Mississippi and see us,” he said, adding that he was in the Army for a few years before going to college and spent his first days in the service telling fellow soldiers from other parts of the country that his home state is not the place they imagined.
“To say we are racist is stupid,” he continued. “Here in Mississippi we pride ourselves on change. Of course it was a long time coming, but Mississippi is far from its racist past.”
Like many nationally, those at the school learned of the chant on Twitter. It was spring break and the campus was mostly empty. Many of the administrators who were around were watching the game at various parties around the school. They couldn’t hear the broadcast. But they could get on their computers. And they could read what their buzzing phones were telling them.
Jeff Hammond, USM’s interim athletic director, had just settled into his seat at the Consol Energy Center to watch the following game when the school called with news of the chant. Hammond, a recently retired Army general who helped lead the surge in Iraq, reacted immediately. He called the band director and ordered the five students to be brought to a room in their Pittsburgh motel. He caught a ride to the motel and stalked into the room, where the five students sat, heads down, their faces streaked with tears.
“We’re a brotherhood, we’re a sisterhood, and by gosh I’m disappointed,” he said he told them. “This reflects on all of us.”
Then he went to Kansas State’s hotel, where he apologized to Rodriguez and then-Kansas State coach Frank Martin.
“It’s OK,” Martin said.
“No, it’s not OK,” Hammond replied.
He turned to Rodriguez and staring the guard in the eye and as if addressing a soldier, Hammond said, “You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and I hope you can trust us. This isn’t who we are. We don’t have a history of incidents like this.”
Wednesday, sitting in his office, he gazed out the window and shook his head.
“It was a breakdown,” he said of the band. “I don’t believe these students were mean-spirited. They made a mistake.”
Hammond was looking out at the football stadium, where long before his military career, he was a Southern Miss quarterback. He loves this school, which is why he wanted to come back after retiring from the Army. He believes there is a resilience here that is different than other places. But he also sees a respect, an understanding of different people and cultures that to him reflects the country for which he fought.
Many times in the Middle East, he said, Arab leaders would turn to him and ask the same question: “How does the U.S. make its diversity a strength?”
“On campus here, what you see is what you get,” he said. “When you make a mistake, you don’t run from it. We’re humble. We’re Southern Miss.
“I keep telling people, ‘We’re the good guys.’ “
As for the five students who wept in that Pittsburgh motel room, their names have not been released. The student leaders say they don’t know who they are. On a campus of 16,500, it’s easy to disappear. Left behind are their words, such silly, meaningless words, clouding what should have been a celebratory moment for a school finally back in the NCAAs.
In thinking about the incident, Paul smiled and said, “The NCAA wants sportsmanship, but there is a lot of value put on creating a hostile environment.”
That probably had more to do with what happened than race. Among the context lost is that the rest of the band did not join the green card chant. Many immediately hissed at the five to be quiet as the quintet shouted at Rodriguez, who is from Puerto Rico and therefore an American citizen.
But as Paul said, the bell can’t be un-rung. The words have been said. The harm has been done. And so Southern Miss reacted better than maybe any school in a similar situation, with punishment swift and strong.
And maybe in doing so, Paul found his teachable moment.
Slowly in Mississippi, the past becomes the past.
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