The email came too late.
Sunday’s Press Democrat included my story on fan behavior at local high school sporting events – whether it sometimes crosses the line of good taste, whether it’s getting worse, what schools are doing to police it. You can read the story here.
The day the article ran, I got an email from Mary Gail Stablein, principal at Elsie Allen High School. The story had germinated from an incident involving the boys basketball teams from Elsie Allen and Petaluma High. The people I spoke with downplayed the incident, and it wound up as a small piece of the overall story.
I had tried on several occasions to get Stablein’s input, but she did not return my calls and emails. I said as much in the article. (This is how reporters scold sources who don’t talk to them. Nudge-nudge.) Now Stablein was writing to tell me my email had been trapped in her spam filter. She wanted to talk to me about what had happened with Petaluma.
In fact, she was offering more than that. Stablein provided me with a copy of this open letter:
It was signed by 10 members of the Elsie Allen boys basketball team. This is an interesting letter. I wish I had seen it before the story went to print. I didn’t, and we decided in the PD sports department that it wasn’t worth revisiting with a follow-up story. So I’m going to delve into the matter here.
This letter is significant because it shows that the Elsie Allen boys were serious about the possibility of refusing to play at Petaluma on Feb. 10. And it affirmed something I had heard while researching the original story, but had been unable to pin down: that the Petaluma heckler wasn’t just a fan. He was a teacher.
Petaluma High principal David Stirrat confirms that, though he notes that the teacher is also the father of a boy on the Trojans basketball team. He was there to root on his son that night, and the teacher in question admits to nothing more than riding the referees a little hard.
What was really said? Who knows?
Stablein called me on Monday morning, and in her office was the player, senior Nickolas Hercules, who had been the target of the jeers in January.
“We were going into halftime, and I had the ball with five seconds left,” Hercules explained. “I got fouled on a half-court shot. I was right next to the scoreboard. My other teammate Gage Smith heard it, I didn’t. Gage told Madison (Lott, the Lobos coach). And Gage is not the dude to really get loud. He’s a real quiet guy. He had gotten furious.”
That occurrence, combined with previous examples of what the Elsie kids believed were racially motivated taunts, sparked the team’s protest. Stablein said she asked Sonoma County League commissioner Dave Ashworth to arrange a meeting, and he did; Petaluma High principal David Stirrat and Healdsburg High principal Lori Rhodes were there, too.
According to Stablein, she and Stirrat agreed that the game would be moved to a neutral site and played without fans. Later, she says, Stirrat changed his mind.
Stirrat doesn’t quite see it the same way.
“I arrived at the meeting and was handed a large document that had been put together that I hadn’t seen,” Stirrat told me. “We said that if Elsie was still uncomfortable coming to our place, it was almost like, ‘How would we be able to best serve Elsie?’ But when I read through the packet and saw what had been said, I didn’t think it rose to the level of a neutral court.”
Stablein protested, and Ashworth arranged an arbitration meeting at Analy High on Feb. 9. Three “neutral principles” ruled on the dispute and decided not to move to the game to a neutral court. It would be played at Petaluma, with certain stipulations. Among them, Petaluma High would have to provide security, and both principals would make an announcement calling for respectful behavior during the game. Stablein said the agreement also called for leaving the first two rows of seating empty; Stirrat disputes this.
In any case, the Elsie Allen kids weren’t sure it was good enough. They took an anonymous vote on whether to play. Stablein collected the sticky-note ballots, and the game was preserved.
“We came up with a plan: how to get into Petaluma, and how to get out of Petaluma,” Stablein said. “I would trust their administration to be following directive. Yet when emotions are high, the concern of our kids is the top priority.”
Hercules noted that there were no further incidents, though he said the Lobos’ week of practice was significantly disrupted by the process.
All in all, the senior said, his athletic experience at Elsie Allen has been a rewarding one. And though the gibes of an unfamiliar adult were troubling enough to make him and his teammates consider a boycott, he didn’t let it get under his skin.
“I don’t feel bad about myself,” Hercules said. “I feel bad about him teaching his kids in his classroom. I don’t see body type, I don’t see color.”
Others do. And even here in progressive Sonoma County, they occasionally feel comfortable in pointing out those differences, even when the target is a high school kid trying to play a basketball game.