Staff Editorial: A former athlete is suing GW for racist discrimination. It’s time students listen.

GW officials claim they recognize the value of diversity, equity and inclusion. But a recently revived, five-year-old lawsuit accusing the University of discrimination shows the extent to which GW as an institution – and its students – have perpetuated a persistent culture of racism on campus, most recently in a rash of racist incidents in the classroom last year.

Former GW student Jabari Stafford is asking the University for $1 million in damages for its failure to properly address the discriminatory conduct and subsequent mental and emotional distress he faced while playing on GW’s men’s tennis team from 2014 to 2017. Last month, D.C.’s Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Stafford after he appealed a January 2022 District Court ruling that dismissed his lawsuit over the statute of limitations to evaluate discrimination claims.

The court will decide whether GW discriminated against Stafford, who is Black, based on the color of his skin. The University does not deny that Stafford faced “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” racist abuse while on the tennis team. “No other student-athlete – no human being – should have to go through what my son went through,” wrote Tom Stafford, Stafford’s father, in an op-ed The Hatchet published in June 2022.

Because while the Staffords are bringing the University to court, the culture that students of color face at GW remains very much intact. The free-flowing racist abuse on the men’s tennis team reflects the actions of students as much as it does the incompetence, strategic or otherwise, of the University’s administration in dealing with it.

According to the lawsuit, members of the men’s tennis team called Stafford “monkey” and other racial slurs, asked him if his ancestors were slaves and posted memes including the N-word. The lawsuit also alleges that teammates sexually harassed and assaulted another player who is a person of color. Stafford’s coaches only furthered this persistent abuse, allegedly downplaying the nature of his teammates’ racist remarks and disproportionately targeting Stafford and other nonwhite players with disciplinary procedures, including suspension from the team in 2015.

At the beginning of his junior year in 2016, 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 on the tennis team. Scott and Cannaday first responded with “mortification” but proceeded to direct Stafford to GW’s grievance filing website, which enables students to register complaints against faculty and staff members for discrimination. After suffering years of racist abuse, officials effectively advised Stafford to sift through legalese and draft an email.

Together, the Staffords said they faced a byzantine process, back-and-forth communication and inaction despite those mortified reactions. “I did everything in my power to support my son,” Stafford wrote. “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?”

GW’s institutions – like the Office for Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement and GW Athletics – offered little to no recourse to Stafford and other nonwhite athletes on the tennis team, allowing a culture of hate to flourish essentially unchecked. Forms, processes and procedures, notwithstanding, how was this allowed to go on for so long?

“It is worth noting that complaints filed in court only represent one side’s view of a case,” then-University spokesperson Lindsay Hamilton said when The Hatchet began covering Stafford’s case in 2018. That may be true, but it does not take a legal degree to note that no matter how much the University says it values diversity, equity and inclusion, it has failed to put those values into practice.

These terms are not boilerplate rhetoric to us. Nor, as Stafford’s very lawsuit shows, are they a simple way to avoid legal action. They are a set of principles, and failing to adhere to them has real consequences. The horrific, racist abuse Stafford faced drove him off the tennis team and out of GW at the end of 2017 – it deprived a student-athlete of his chance to learn and his chance to compete. 

But what happened to Stafford began with fellow and now-former members of the student body. The success of student-athletes – or any student – cannot overpower the need to hold them accountable if, or when, they discriminate against their peers. The camaraderie of the tennis team and the experience of a college education should have been a place for these student-athletes to unlearn their biases and confront their racism with the lived experience of their teammates. Instead, the abhorrent behavior of the team’s players against Stafford, just one of roughly 800 Black men at GW during the four years he was enrolled here, only intensified.

GW students don’t shy away from making our voices heard or demanding justice. This is the same student body who rushed to the Supreme Court in May to protest the leaked decision overturning Roe v. Wade and again in June once the court made its decision. But it seems that few of us have heard or spoken about Stafford’s case during its long and ongoing journey through the legal system, allowing the University to keep the case out of the court of public opinion.

So, we have something to say. We are sorry, Jabari, as a student body that we let this happen. It shouldn’t have, and we’re sorry. For you, for us and for everyone who comes here after, this has to change. We need it to.

We will all be lucky if the court rules in Stafford’s favor – it’s a small price for GW to pay to learn that diversity, equity and inclusion is a commitment, not just three words.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by Opinions Editor Ethan Benn and Contributing Opinions Editor Julia Koscelnik, based on discussions with Research Assistant Zachary Bestwick, Sports Editor Nuria Diaz, Managing Editor Jaden DiMauro, Culture Editor Clara Duhon, Design Editor Grace Miller, Contributing Social Media Director Ethan Valliath and Community Relations Director Abrigail Williams.

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