Federal Court Permits Football Players’ Discrimination Case Against California Community College

Three Black former football players can pursue their civil rights suit accusing a northern California community college of racial discrimination, verbal abuse and harassment, a federal judge has ruled.

Dr. Ronald Taylor, the president of Feather River College, said he cannot comment on the litigation but that it is “probably a safe assumption” that the college will deny all the allegations in the next stage of the case.

And in court papers, the college blamed the suit on the plaintiffs’ “disappointment at not making the team for their sophomore year” and “not believing that any other players could possibly be better than them.”

In his decision, U.S. District Judge John Mendez rejected a request by the Feather River Community College District, its director of athletic operations, head coach and an assistant coach to dismiss the case without trial. 

The suit alleges that Feather River College recruited South Carolina residents Emory Boyd Jr., Quinton Hancock and Nicholas Page to play for its Golden Eagles with an understanding that the team’s coaching staff would help them get athletic scholarships at four-year institutions after completing their associate’s degrees. The students paid out-of-state tuition.

But after they arrived at the campus in the small, predominantly White community of Quincy, they and other African-American athletes encountered “racially hostile conduct,” the suit claims. That conduct allegedly included coaches’ use of derogatory names, unfair criticism and attempts to provoke White players to get into fights with their Black teammates.

 

According to the suit, White players received more playing time, which is essential for getting “film” to show recruiters from four-year institutions.

Athletic director Merle Trueblood and head coach James Johnson were aware of the situation, including racially motivated misbehavior by assistant coach Josh White, but failed to take remedial action, the plaintiffs allege. All three are named as defendants.

     

All three plaintiffs were academically and athletically eligible to return and play in 2010-11 but were cut from the team, the complaint says. It attributes their being dropped to the college’s decision to change the team’s racial composition from predominantly Black in 2009-10 to predominantly White in 2010-11 “by disproportionately cutting eligible returning African-American players and disproportionately recruiting White players in their place.”

Specifically, the suit says the 2009 team had 99 players: 72 Black and 27 White. The 2010 team had 78 players: 31 Black and 47 White. Eighteen of the 21 who were cut were Black, and seven Black athletes chose not to return because of what they “perceived as a racially hostile atmosphere.”

The college adopted a “calculated, intentional effort to ‘change the face’ of the football team,” the suit alleges.

Two of the plaintiffs did not return to the college in 2010-11. The third returned and finished his degree but wasn’t kept on the team. The complaint said that, “by the time he learned he had been cut, he had already flown across the country, arranged for financial aid, housing and other necessities. It was financially extremely difficult for him to return to South Carolina—he was stuck in Quincy and unable to play football.”

The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages for a racially hostile educational environment and racial discrimination in education under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, discrimination in making a contract and violation of 14th Amendment equal protection rights.

The college asked Munoz to dismiss the case, arguing that the three ex-students failed to produce enough facts to support their claims. For example, it asserted that they offered no evidence that any college employee’s conduct was racially motivated. It also said that determining which players to cut involved “personnel-style decisions necessary for the coaches and administrators to make in order to field a football team.”

Nor did the plaintiffs provide evidence that the college deprived them of access to educational benefits or opportunities because of the allegedly hostile environment, the college argued.

But Mendez disagreed. Without deciding the merits of the claims, he found the allegations sufficient for the case to move forward.

“The plaintiffs have alleged that the harassment and discrimination was racially motivated and the court can infer that they were being harassed based on their race from the wealth of allegations in the complaint,” Munoz said.

Taylor said he cannot comment on whether other players have filed administrative or court complaints “because of potential privacy issues.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

In a separate federal case, the former associate coach who recruited the plaintiffs, Eric Small, is seeking damages for employment discrimination and civil rights violations. 

Small had been assigned to recruit players from Southern states and later unsuccessfully applied for promotion to head coach. The job went instead to a White candidate.

The college had disputed Small’s allegations in its court filings.