Living in Alabama and having committed to the Crimson Tide affords quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa a heightened status over other elite recruits who decided to go elsewhere.
“People here are diehard for ‘Bama football,” Tagovailoa said.
The admiration for Tagovailoa is even greater because he’s the brother of Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who Alabama in the national title game last season.
Still, Taulia learned during a road game this season that racism is no respecter of person, family or affiliation. Once Taulia had Thompson High School (Alabaster, Ala.) firmly in control in the second half, he heard racist remarks hurled at him and his teammates from the home team’s stands.
“It’s crazy that the person felt comfortable enough to say things in a crowd in public,” Tagovailoa said. “I’m not naive, I know there are racist people, but still.”
Taulia’s experience was just one in a string of, at the very least, racially insensitive incidents that have surfaced at high school football games all over the country this fall.
“Racism is very much alive,” said Jordan Clark, a four-star cornerback from University Lab High School (Baton Rouge, La.) who is committed to Arizona State.
If the wide-ranging spree of incidents are any indication, the culprits are ditching covert for overt.
- At halftime during a football game last Friday between Georgia high schools Brookwood and DeKalb Lakeside, Brookwood band members were supposed to spell out the word “Broncos,” but instead spelled out the word “coon.” In a letter to students and parents, Brookwood Principal William Bo Ford Jr. apologized for the “completely unacceptable racial term.”
- In California in September, Santa Ana High principal Jeff Bishop said he saw posters reading “We Love White” and “Build the Wall” during the school’s football game at Aliso Niguel (Aliso Viejo). Bishop also said he heard Aliso Niguel students say, “It’s not a great day to be Mexican now, is it?” Santa Ana’s student population is 99 percent Hispanic, while Aliso Niguel’s student population is predominantly white.
- In Ohio in October, the Mansfield High football team had bananas sitting in their locker room when they arrived to play at Ashland, according to the Mansfield News Journal. Mansfield, which has a predominantly African American student population, also reportedly had bananas thrown at them, and a person in the stands was dressed as a banana.
Daniel Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said that instances like these “are more noticeable” because of the current political climate.
“There are two ways to look at it,” Drezner said. “One way is that it’s always been a problem, it’s just that we’re beginning to notice it now. That’s where (President Donald) Trump’s variety of examples of bigotry on display has suddenly made us more sensitized to these sorts of things happening.
“The other possibility is that Trump emboldens this type of behavior. I think it will get better because, eventually, Trump will move from the stage. (Also), everyone who tries to act like him winds up paying a far higher price than he does because everyone else is not the President.”
The targets of racism, however, are shaken. U’Kari Baker, a highly recruited wide receiver at Central High (Louisville, Ky.), is outgoing and approachable, the type of person that can strike up a conversation with a total stranger.
“Not being cocky or anything like that, but people just like me,” Baker said. “I just naturally get along with people.”
So, he was dumbfounded last month when a group of students at nearby Ballard High passed around a watermelon while taunting Baker and the rest of the predominantly African American team.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Baker said. “I still can’t. It’s hard to put into words, really. I’m a 17-year-old black teenager and I had never experienced racism before. It’s hard to believe this still is still going on in 2018.”
Oxford (Ala.) High center Clay Webb said he’s “heard the N-word” said to his teammates by opposing players “in a couple different games, and I’m always shocked.”
“Those people are just stupid,” said Webb, who is ranked No. 18 overall in USA TODAY Sports’ Chosen 25. “I’m white and it bothers me, too. Usually, on the next couple of plays, those guys get rocked.”
Ballard High tried to handle its situation diplomatically. In a letter sent to parents, principal Jason Neuss addressed the watermelon incident, calling it “inappropriate” and “insensitive” and reached out to Central principal Raymond Green.
Baker said he was “on the fence” about the apology from Neuss because the school’s administration “didn’t pass around the watermelon,” students did.
“I wish we could’ve had a conversation with some of those students,” Baker said. “Just so they could hear how that impacted us and we could talk things out.”
For that to happen, authority figures must know about incidents. Reporting can be spotty.
National Federation of State High School Associations Director of Sports and Sports Medicine Bob Colgate said he has “not heard anything or had any of our state associations bring that to my attention.”
“That’s not to say things may not be happening,” Colgate said. “Each state has different sportsmanship policies and guidelines. If it gets to the point where an individual is ejected from the game, then the state association’s ejection policy comes in to play.”
In Alabama an ejection is accompanied by a $300 fine the school must pay to the state association. The player is required to take a refresher course in a sportsmanship program, which every athlete is required to complete before competing.
“We have not had any schools report racial problems,” said AHSAA spokesman Ron Ingram. “If it came before us we would address it. We would appreciate it if schools would let us know.”
Reported or not, racist comments and symbols shock and sting. Central running back Mykah Williams said that seeing the bananas in the locker room was “an eye-opener.”
“This was the stuff my grandparents were dealing with in the 1950s,” Williams said. “Now I am. I thought we were better than that.”
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY