Op-ed: Enough is enough. My son and I are taking on GW’s racist administration

Tom Stafford is suing the University over racist treatment his son received while playing tennis at GW between 2014 and 2017.

While nationwide protests against racial injustice in 2020 made the world more woke on systemic racism, my son, Jabari, and I have been fighting the University in court since 2018. We sued GW because my son and other non-white players on the team faced years of harassment from their coaches and teammates that University officials did nothing to stop and investigate. The District Court ruled in favor of GW, limiting our case to a one-year statute of limitations for discrimination claims under the D.C. Human Rights Act, but I will keep fighting for the consideration that our suit deserves. Institutional racism at GW sabotaged my son’s future in sports and damaged his mental health. I’m appealing this case because no other student-athlete – no human being – should have to go through what my son went through. The world needs to know what’s happening at GW and the toll that institutional racism is having on the very students this University is supposed to protect.

Jabari dreamed of becoming a professional tennis player for as many years as he can remember, and we enrolled him at GW – at our own expense – because of the exciting educational and athletic opportunities it provided. But this dream became a nightmare. For the three and a half years he attended GW, my son endured being called racial slurs and was threatened and discriminated against by members of the school’s athletic department – none of which GW denies happened. His teammates called him a “cotton-picking” n-word, a monkey, ape and gorilla. He also confronted comments leveraging racial stereotypes about his genitals and received second-class treatment from coaches whom we once trusted would protect him. For the three-and-a-half years when he was a student on GW’s campus, his coaches labeled him the “token Black kid” as he navigated a toxic environment in which other Black and minority tennis players were sexually assaulted, constantly called the n-word and in more hostile cases, smeared with excrement by their fellow teammates. This abuse culminated in an effort by his coaches and teammates to first suspend and later unfairly – and illegally – oust him from the team with no reason beyond their hostility to my son.

My son came to GW with the desire to play tennis at a professional level and achieve academic success. But the racial hostility and pressure he experienced as one of the only Black players in the entire tennis program at times impacted his performance, and worse, his self-esteem and wellness. The persistent and overt racism Jabari experienced taxed his mental and emotional health – he lost his desire to play professional tennis, his confidence in dealing with daily life and his opportunity to earn a college degree.

I did everything in my power to support my son – I spoke to officials looking for answers about the unfair treatment my son experienced as a concerned parent, not as an adversary. When we contacted GW’s administration, Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, athletic department and tennis coaches to address the harassment that my son started facing in his freshman year, they gave us failed promises of follow-ups, and we faced more bureaucracy to make more formal complaints. When I was finally able to tell someone what happened to my son, they were shocked and mortified, but nothing came of it. They only sent us down a path of more bureaucratic rigamarole with back-and-forth communication, denial, deflection and inaction. If these officials knew what was happening to my son, and they knew it was wrong, why didn’t they do anything to stop it? I found that getting a grievance addressed at GW was more difficult than the entire admissions process to get my son enrolled and playing there in the first place. My polite approach meant nothing. During the discovery process, our legal team found emails between officials in which they rudely called me difficult to work with.

The lack of support from the Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement has hurt even more. Departments like this claim to be bastions of support for Black and brown people at predominately white institutions. But when I took my concerns about my son’s experience to officials at this office, I wasn’t met with allyship and solidarity. Instead, staff deferred to the progress they claimed the University was making to address racism on campus. But slapping a “Black Lives Matter” banner on a gym locker, saying it during campus town halls or simply calling an office one for diversity, equity and inclusion isn’t enough. Initiatives like these create the appearance of a diverse and tolerant campus, but the abuse my son experienced proves otherwise.

As a result, we have been steadfast in suing GW under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which prohibits racial discrimination in any program or activity that receives funding from the federal government, like collegiate sports – for its negligence in protecting my son against racial discrimination.

Right now, my son is continuing to pursue his passions off the team and more independently. And while he is privileged and fortunate to have the family backing and legal support that so many young Black athletes in the United States don’t have, it shouldn’t have to be like this in order for the most talented and diverse players to have a fighting chance at an equal playing field. Refusing to suffer in silence shouldn’t be considered heroic or rare, but should be a call to action for any person of color who experiences similar discrimination. Before they play for the Olympics or sign six-figure contracts, student-athletes need to know that the various departments charged with supporting them actually do so. The people running these offices should also be culturally competent and aware of their biases.

Students and their families should have more access and power in evaluating the people and initiatives overseeing their children in collegiate athletic departments. For my son and countless others, we must address the institutional racism that continues to be a barrier to success for Black students and athletes at all levels.

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