School officials at St. Francis in Cleveland accuse Catholic Youth Organization of racial bias

Updated: Mar. 15, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Officials at St. Francis school in Cleveland are challenging the Catholic Youth Organization to take a closer look at accusations of racial bias within the league after a February incident in Chagrin Falls.

The league, which is often referred to as the CYO, is the governing body for youth sports associated with member schools of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

On February 14, when St. Francis was playing at St. Joan of Arc in a middle school basketball game, attendees say a referee treated St. Francis unfairly.

They believe the treatment was racially charged.

A referee “was demeaning when he was talking to the kids. He called [a player] ‘boy.’ I understand he is a young man, but as an African-American, that term does not fit well for us,” said St. Francis head coach Alwyn Reid.

All of St. Francis’ players are African-American.

“It made me feel kind of mad, and, at the same time, I felt sad because I was getting treated differently,” the player told 19 News.

There was also an incident in the stands during the game.

Parents and coaches told 19 News that two adults were confronted by the referee as they stood near the bleachers, a position they said they chose to maintain social distancing from the crowded bleachers.

According to witness accounts, the referee demanded the parents leave in an argumentative way when they explained their reasoning.

At one point, police were called.

“We just felt like we were being targeted for the color of our skin,” said Marquita Durant, another parent.

At the time interviews for this story were conducted, and up until its original publication, it was unclear who called 911.

The Chagrin Falls Police Department provided 19 News with the audio of the call, which appears to be from a parent upset about the treatment of the fans and social distancing concerns.

“There’s a lot of arguing and they’re trying to bunch us into sections,” the caller told dispatchers. “They kicked me out of the basketball game because I refused to sit bunched up.”

A report was never filed with police.

Eventually, Coach Reid pulled his team from the court.

St. Francis was forced to forfeit its next game.

Reid was suspended one game for the combination of pulling his team and cursing; he accepted the penalty and apologized.

In a letter to St. Francis administrators, the CYO said the referees that officiated the game would not be assigned to any St. Francis games in the future.

According to principal Scott Embacher, the referee at the center of the controversy was allowed to continue working other games.

“With the CYO system... I’m completely disappointed,” said Reid. “They took their word and ran with it. You have almost congruent stories coming from St. Joan of Arc parents about the refs’ actions. But none of that went into consideration.”

Embacher provided 19 News with a copy of letters written by both a parent from St. Joan of Arc as well as the team’s head coach; both letters referenced the alleged mistreatment.

“We are writing to thank you for visiting our school and want to express how sorry we are that we were unable to finish our game,” the letter from the team said.

It was signed by each of the student-athletes.

The letter from the parent, who also identified herself as a school official, included this: “I really do not know how things got out of hand so fast. Several of our parents did send complaints to CYO about the officials as they obviously handled things badly.”

The St. Joan of Arc coach later drove to St. Francis to personally deliver the letter of support on behalf of the team.

In a letter to Embacher, Mary Ann King, the athletic administrator for the CYO wrote:

“This preventable incident violates the mission of CYO to know God, to love God, and to serve God through athletics. The behavior of coaches, parents, and fans that occurred at this game are troubling and raise questions about the culture of your CYO programs.

“Your athletes are to be commended for their positive actions when the adults present behaved poorly. The coaches are members of the team whose behaviors hurt their own players most of all. I strongly urge you to continue to work with your coaches, parents and fans to build a CYO culture where this will never happen again.”

“There is systemic change that needs to happen,” Embacher said. “Without that systemic change, CYO can’t be the organization it aspires to be.”

A joint statement by the CYO and St. Francis was issued to 19 News on March 12.

“It was very emotional. It’s racism, and it’s still going on today. It’s sad,” one player said.

“Out of all this, I just want everybody to be treated equally,” another told 19 News.

St. Francis and St. Joan of Arc played again on March 13 in Chagrin Falls.

In a moment of unity, Embacher addressed both teams and the crowd before the game.

“We are very grateful to the St. Joan of Arc community for your kind words and your support,” he said.

The school did not identify the referee.

Copyright 2021 WOIO. All rights reserved.