During a boys basketball game Wednesday, dozens of Port Washington High School students held a photocopied image of Nicolet standout Jalen Johnson that made it appear he was wearing blackface.
A photo of the scene has gone viral on social media and sparked outrage among many throughout the Milwaukee-area basketball community for the racist overtones such images represent.
At Port Washington, it sparked an apology Thursday morning from the school’s principal, Eric Burke.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “We’re going to make this right. Apologies have to be made. As a principal, I apologize for our student’s actions, but our students are going to be involved in a sincere apology for what happened and the people who made this happen, there are going to be consequences.”
Jalen’s father, Roderick, said the family would not comment about what happened Wednesday. Nicolet superintendent Robert Kobylski issued a statement that said the picture was taken from Johnson’s Instagram account and that he was wearing a charcoal facial mask to care for his skin.
“I cannot speak to the motivation or intent the Port Washington students had in displaying this photo, whether a harmless skin-care prank or a more deeply troubling, racially motivated scenario,” Kobylski’s statement read.
“I can attest, however, to the fact that Jalen is more than a tremendous athlete: he is a fine, upstanding young man and deserves to be treated with respect and courtesy by all students and people, no matter what bench they are rooting for.
“My expectation is that Nicolet students always display respect, upstanding character and courtesy to one another and to students from other schools in sports, and in every day interactions. I also expect that Nicolet students receive the same treatment from students at other schools.”
Johnson, one of the nation’s top players, has often been the source of opposing fans’ attention.
ESPN ranks Jalen Johnson as the third-best prospect in the 2020 class. He has received scholarship offers from most, if not all, of the nation’s top programs.
He and his younger brother, Kobe, made news last summer when they announced they were leaving Sun Prairie High School and transferring to Nicolet, a move that was criticized by some.
Despite the distraction Wednesday, Johnson still recorded a triple double — 10 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists — in a 75-40 win.
Burke first heard about the incident Wednesday night. From his understanding of the event, the students didn’t reveal the picture until Johnson went to the free throw line. The student section is right behind the basket.
Burke said the pictures were quickly taken from the students.
“What (athletic director) Thad (Gabrielse) told me this morning is that as soon as they found about it, they started to take it down, within a minute or two,” Burke said. “What they found, too, is that there were a lot of pictures made. It was dealing with it at first and then if anything else came up they dealt with it right away.”
Burke said a Port Washington student made copies of the picture and then handed them out in the student section and that the students kept them out of sight until Johnson went to the free throw line.
While the Johnsons declined an interview request for this story, Jalen Johnson did respond on Twitter, retweeting a tweet that called the incident despicable and adding a brief comment.
When asked if his students understood the implication of using that picture of Johnson, Burke offered this:
“This is what I’m assuming: that they didn’t understand how it could be construed. But when I talked to them about it, it was ‘Oh’. Then they got it.
“But it’s already happened so now we’ve got to figure out how to make this right so it doesn’t happen again.”