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Family wants rule changes following incident of racism

Shannon Ryan
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – When Keisha Cunnings moved from the Chicago area to Iowa for a lower cost of living and to avoid the downsides of city life with her young son Jeremiah Chapman, she said she didn't worry too much about facing racism.

She had experienced it herself as the only Black student in her class in Oak Forest.

But when Chapman was subjected to threatening racist taunts during a recent baseball game, the experience shook both mother and son.

"This event was traumatic," said Cunnings, who moved to Iowa before her son entered first grade. "I am worried. Is he going to be on edge for every event? It's easy to say, 'This is what happens and you have to move past it,' but he's 17. He's not an adult. He's not used to this.

"He just wants to be accepted. One of his football coaches checked in on him, and he said, 'All my life I've been trying to fit in, and this is a reminder I'll never fit in.' "

Chapman, who plays for Charles City High School, about two hours north of Des Moines, said that during a June 27 game against nearby Waverly-Shell Rock, opposing fans yelled at him, "You should have been George Floyd," and, "Get back to the fields." He said they also chanted, "Trump 2020."

He said he initially heard them calling him "Colin," which he believes was a reference to former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took a knee during the pregame national anthem as a protest against police brutality.

"I just ignored it (on the field)," Chapman said. "I'm trying to hurry up to get off the field. Get these three outs and get off the field. It was my teammate's last game. I thought we were going to win. I thought, maybe you guys can talk to them after the game. I didn't want that to be on my mind."

Chapman said he told his coach, who told an umpire. The umpire asked Chapman how he would like to proceed, which Chapman said he appreciated. His mom said that might not have been far enough.

Cunnings and her husband were out of town when they got a text from their son reading: "Why are people so mean? What do we do to make people treat us so badly?"

"It was handled the way Jeremiah wanted it to be handled in that moment," she said. "Jeremiah's not a huge attention person. ... But at the same time, Jeremiah is 17. He's a child. He doesn't have a choice.

"In my opinion the game should've been stopped immediately. If they couldn't identify who it was, the whole student section should've been kicked out. Or our team should've picked up our stuff and left: 'We will not play anybody who allows their spectators to be disrespectful.' "

Waverly-Shell Rock said in a statement that the school district's Title IX and equity coordinators are conducting separate investigations "to ensure that all facts have been uncovered and considered as we move through this process."

"Because the investigation into the incident continues to reveal new information, our efforts to communicate in a timely manner have led to some confusion and rumors," the statement read. "Any reports that indicate that the individual or individuals who made the comments is known are rumors. We apologize for the confusion and want to be clear that we are not backtracking or minimizing; we just need to get it right. Unfortunately, getting it right takes longer than any of us want it to. We are committed to a timely and thorough process."

Charles City's administration also released a statement: "Our students must know we have their backs regardless of the circumstances and that we are fighting shoulder to shoulder with them to end oppression and to create the world that we know is possible. Our state and nation needs to know that our thoughts, words and actions matter. We must do better. We must be better."

Iowa became the first state to resume sanctioned high school athletic events in June after most non-essential activities and businesses were suspended in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shortly after, a team about three hours west of Charles City reported racist slurs directed at Latino students and families during a softball game.

Chapman's experience with racism unfolded as protests continue around the country following high-profile killings of Black people by police, including Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.

"Jeremiah was very naive and very ignorant to racism," Cunnings said. "He really hasn't had to experience it as much. We live in a small community. He's really good at sports. I feel like this is a wake-up call to know that these things still happen and exist. I preach it, but to experience it is a totally different thing. That was his 'aha moment' but in a negative way."

Chapman, who recently completed his junior year, is the only Black baseball player on the Charles City varsity. His brother and another Black teammate compete on the junior varsity squad, Cunnings said.

The percentage of Black players in Major League Baseball has fallen from 19% in 1991 to 8.4% last year, according to the Institute of Diversity and Ethics in Sports. Black players have discussed feeling ostracized in the sport and hearing racist language.

Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Jon Duplantier recently told about being taunted with threats of lynching while he was a high school player during a "Being Black in Baseball and America" panel discussion with other players. In 2019, the Cubs banned a fan who made a racist hand symbol behind broadcaster and former outfielder Doug Glanville.

Fans hung a banner that read, "Racism is as American as baseball," over the Green Monster at Boston's Fenway Park in 2017 after Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones said he heard racist remarks while he was playing there.

Major League Baseball has instituted many initiatives and programs to help diversify the sport at the youth level. Chapman, a four-sport athlete, said he took up baseball as a child to hang out with friends and because it was his grandmother's favorite sport.

"He told me that night (of the taunts), 'I'm quitting baseball and I'm done with sports,' " Cunnings said, noting her surprise because Chapman aimed to play college athletics.

Cunnings said the family has received support from the community and even people in surrounding towns who have come to support Chapman at subsequent games. He said he's having fun in baseball again and wants to continue playing baseball and other sports.

He hopes young Black kids hearing his experience take away a lesson in perseverance.

"You can't change your skin color," he said. "You can't change for anyone. Be yourself. Be glad in who you are. Be you."

Cunnings said the family decided to speak out because she saw some on social media doubting the veracity of Chapman's account.

She also hopes their outspokenness might make schools in Iowa and beyond institute a no-tolerance policy for racist and hateful remarks at sporting events.

"This is not just an isolated issue," she said. "This is not just a northeast Iowa issue. This is a nationwide issue we need to address."