Former men’s tennis player continues lawsuit as documents show culture of racism

Media Credit: Hatchet file photo by Eric Lee

The appeal alleges non-white players faced years of racism, from frequent racist slurs, harassment and harsher punishment from coaches for minor infractions.

A former men’s tennis player appealed a January ruling last Friday that dismissed a lawsuit alleging players and coaches used racial slurs, discriminated against him and “unlawfully” suspended him from the team.

Jabari Stafford filed the appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals after the 2018 lawsuit, which accuses officials of failing to properly address a racist and discriminatory environment fostered by players and coaches during Stafford’s time as a player, was dismissed earlier this year. Christopher Cooper, a D.C. District Court judge, ruled against Stafford in January, citing the expiration of a one-year statute of limitations for discrimination claims based on the D.C. Human Rights Act, but Stafford’s appeal argues that a three-year statute of limitations based on D.C.’s personal injury law should apply in this case.

The appeal – like the lawsuit before it – alleges Stafford and other non-white players faced years of racism, from frequent racist slurs, harassment and harsher punishment from coaches for minor infractions. The appeal states GW coaches participated in discriminatory acts with racist comments, and that staff members and administrators allegedly failed to properly investigate and address them.

“The University took no action to end the discrimination,” the appeal alleges. “Indeed, at least three of the school officials Stafford spoke to actively discouraged him from reporting the abuse.”

Stafford sued the University, athletics department officials and 10 former members of the men’s tennis team in November 2018, alleging they racially discriminated against him by tolerating and participating in racist behavior and jokes. The appeal states officials failed to address the regular use of the n-word and other slurs against Stafford, and declined to investigate Stafford’s claims after he complained about the incidents to officials.

“They asked him if his ancestors were slaves, how he could be Black and have money and told him he belonged in Black neighborhoods,” the appeal reads. “They plotted to goad him into lashing out so that they could secretly record him and then use the recording to have him kicked off the team.”

The appeal also alleges that teammates sexually harassed and assaulted another player, who is a person of color, on the team on multiple occasions.

Cooper, D.C. District Court judge, said in his judgement that with a longer statute of limitations – which limits the time that a lawsuit can be filed after an event – the court would have allowed the jury to consider Stafford’s claims about the effect of discrimination on his education and officials’ alleged “deliberate indifference” to his experience. Cooper’s judgement states GW doesn’t challenge Stafford’s claims that he faced “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” abuse while on the tennis team, a choice that he calls “wise.”

“Stafford has now substantiated his allegations, through his own testimony and that of at least one fellow teammate, that the use of racial epithets, directed at or used around him, was prevalent throughout periods of his tenure at GWU,” the judgement states.

In an interview with The Hatchet, Tom Stafford – Jabari’s father – said he was “very confident” in their ability to win the appeal.

Stafford removed former tennis head coaches Greg Munoz and David Macpherson, former athletic director Patrick Nero and former assistant athletic director Nicole Early from the case in September 2019 after the judge dismissed several charges against those defendants. The judge allowed the case to continue with GW as the sole defendant.

The University denied claims that officials mistreated Stafford based on “the color of his skin” in a 2019 filing, which stated officials treated him “fairly and lawfully.” University spokesperson Tim Pierce declined to comment on Stafford’s appeal.

The appeal’s docket includes thousands of pages of depositions, documents, emails, texts and social media posts revealing a pervasive culture of racism, harassment, bullying and discrimination among members of the men’s tennis team during Stafford’s time as a player from 2014 to 2017.

Most documents were obtained during the lawsuit’s litigation and made public over the course of the last several years since the original filing. Some vital depositions from key figures in these incidents – including staff members who responded to claims of discrimination and former tennis players who allegedly faced discrimination – remain sealed, making them unavailable for public viewing.

The appeal claims former head coach Greg Munoz “chastised” Stafford and minimized his concerns when Stafford told Chris Reynolds, who was then serving as co-captain of the team, that Reynolds couldn’t use the n-word. The appeal also claims Munoz threatened to kick Stafford off the team during his freshman year if he filed a formal complaint about the team’s environment.

The complaint states Munoz temporarily suspended Stafford from the team in January 2015 for “anger control,” “profanity issues” and problems related to team morale after Stafford confronted Reynolds who had allegedly called Stafford the n-word, according to the appeal.

The appeal goes on to state that Munoz described Stafford as a “token Black kid” during Stafford’s sophomore season but refused to acknowledge there was racism on the team.

Munoz, who resigned for “personal reasons” in February 2016, did not return a request for comment. In 2018, Munoz told The Hatchet that the original lawsuit includes “far-fetched” allegations and “made-up stories and exaggerations.”

In one Facebook post from Stafford’s freshman year, Francisco Dias – a tennis player who was captain of the team during Stafford’s freshman season – posted a meme of SpongeBob in blackface which also included the n-word, according to a screenshot of the meme published in court documents. Dias did not immediately return a request for comment.

In another court document, Stafford accused Dennis Afanasev, a former tennis player who graduated in 2020, of calling Black opponents “monkeys” while losing. Wills Tutecky, a former tennis player, told the athletics department in 2018 that teammates seemed to be “fearful” to address Afanasev’s behavior due to concerns of retribution from Afanasev’s father, a physics professor at the University, according to a statement he sent to GW’s Title IX director.

Afanasev and Tutecky did not return a request for comment.

Stafford also accused four teammates of trying to coerce other players into secretly recording and “goading” Stafford into saying something negative about the team in an effort to get him kicked off during the 2017-2018 season. Tutecky also said Reynolds tried to “force” him to secretly record Stafford, according to an email published in court documents.

Reynolds did not immediately return a request for comment.

The appeal states that Stafford and his father told Ed Scott, the former senior associate director of athletics, and Helen Cannaday Saulny, the former associate provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, about the racist incidents at the beginning of Stafford’s junior year in 2016. But despite responding with “mortification,” the appeal criticizes them for failing to open an investigation into the incidents, instead directing Stafford to GW’s grievance filing website.

In a 2020 deposition, Director of Students Rights and Responsibilities Christy Anthony said students should use student grievance procedures when reporting incidents, and that staff members should direct students to those protocols when necessary.

Saulny, who now serves as GW’s director of community engagement and D.C. partnerships, could not be reached through a spokesperson. Scott, who now serves as the deputy athletics director at the University of Virginia, did not return a request for comment.

In emails published in court documents, Tutecky said he told Macpherson, the then-Head Coach, about bullying he faced from Reynolds, the team’s co-captain during the 2017-2018 season, multiple times from fall 2016 to fall 2017 but the coach did not address the culture of “exclusion, favorites and intimidation, racism and raunchy language.”

Macpherson, now the coach of professional tennis player John Isner, did not return a request for comment.

In an email sent to Tutecky in April of 2018, Athletic Director Tanya Vogel said an outside law firm, Potomac Law Group, would conduct an investigation into the men’s tennis team, “closely” involved with the Title IX Office. Vogel did not specify the reason for the investigation in her email.

Macpherson resigned months later in August of 2018, citing a desire to focus solely on training professional tennis players.

University spokesperson Tim Pierce declined to comment on the 2018 investigation of the men’s tennis team.

“GW does not deny that the abuse took place,” the appeal states. “But it has not taken the opportunity for self-examination or reform. It has not accepted any responsibility. It has not apologized.”

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