Players from the Parsons Vikings football program are making their voices heard after facing an adversity felt too often.
During halftime of a game between Parsons and Iola at Iola High School Sept. 11, at least three players from the Vikings heard racist taunts from the crowd.
“It’s halftime and we’re heading into the locker room. They said it one time but we just blew it off,” said Ja’Vyn Brown, a junior wide receiver and defensive back for the Vikings. “They said ‘y’all can’t breathe.’ We came out and they said it again. We came together as a team and talked about it and just responded on the scoreboard.”
When it happened, senior running back and linebacker Yusef Kindrick admitted that he wanted to react with the same anger he felt the crowd expressed to him for being Black.
“I was angry,” Kindrick said. “I wanted to snap on them. But I changed my mood. I know not to say anything because that’s just how it is. I wanted to speak my mind, but for me and my team, I didn’t want to get in trouble.”
Parsons posted a second half shutout and beat Iola 25-20. But the sting of the remarks left Vikings players aching for change.
“When I heard it first, I was like ‘wow,’” said junior lineman Tre Russ. “This isn’t a one-time thing. We hear it almost every week on the field and off the field. It happens a lot.”
Over the next few days, the Parsons coaching staff came up with an idea for the two teams to hold a Zoom conference. The Parsons players wanted to advocate for proactive change to the Iola players.
“If we continue to let it happen, we felt like in a way we’re not sticking up for our kids,” Parsons head coach Jeff Schibi said. “Coach (Anthony) Houk called me and had this brilliant idea. There’s a lot of hate going on in the world, so why not spin this and make it about love? Let’s challenge (Iola players) to help the issue within their school. Our kids will hold them accountable to have an action taken.”
That meeting was facilitated by both school administrations.
“It was reported to me that there’d been an incident at the ballgame in Iola on Friday,” Parsons Superintendent Lori Ray said. “I visited with high school administration as well as (Iola Superintendent Stacey) Fager. We set up a time to visit with students.”
On Wednesday morning, that Zoom meeting was held with members from both teams taking part.
“We challenged them to be leaders in the hallway,” Russ said. “They need to step up and tell them what’s right and what’s wrong.”
Julius Smith-Reece, a senior receiver for the Vikings, thought the Zoom meeting was the first step in addressing the situation collaboratively.
“The world is crazy right now with the pandemic and all the things going on,” Smith-Reece said. “The Zoom meeting was a great idea. We came together to sort out the problem. It’s part of a good rivalry with Iola. We want to keep that fun rivalry going.”
Kindrick praised the Iola program for taking Parsons up on the opportunity to listen.
“They listened to us,” Kindrick said. “They could’ve ignored us, but they didn’t. I have to respect them for that. Now we all have to move on.”
“There were things said that our students needed to talk about and address,” Ray said. “I think they did that. Our job as schools is to provide a safe, responsive and safe learning environment for our students.”
For Iola, this is the second incident involving race in a month. In mid-August, according to The Iola Register, students at the school painted a parking spot in support of President Donald Trump. That painting included white supremacist symbols and was eventually painted over because it violated a city ordinance on political signs.
“When you have student matters, the number of times that it can happen can be all over the place. Is it concerning that a matter has happened here that involves race? Yes,” Fager said. “We’ll address that just like any other student matter. It’s inappropriate in a school setting.”
In response to Sept. 11’s incident during the Parsons-Iola game, as well as the Zoom meetings, the Iola administration is looking into moving the student section. The student section was behind the end zone where the visiting team warms up as part of social distancing measures because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It may be moved to the opposite end zone.
“We’ll look into that for future contests,” Fager said. “It was the first time we moved our student section. We wanted to give more spacing for our patrons in the regular part of the stadium.”
Brown wants Iola’s football players to continue pushing for change.
“We want them to be leaders and keep them from saying certain things,” Brown said, “and to prevent situations like that.”
Schibi thinks the meeting has already sparked a positive trend.
“I am satisfied with the path forward,” Schibi said. “I love the approach of attacking it in a positive manner instead of bashing them on Twitter. That could’ve been the route we took and nothing would’ve been fixed. But we respect Iola and their program. So we all handled it the best possible way.”
As for the Parsons players, they want the action they took in response to racism to be a lasting legacy.
“It’s good to see things like this happen,” Kindrick said. “With what we go through every day, it’s good to know that we can make a change.”