University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Head Basketball Coach Jim Boone publicly apologized at the media day to meet the men’s basketball team Wednesday (Nov. 6) for a situation that blew up on the campus and throughout the city in early September.
On Sept. 2, UAFS Chancellor Dr. Terisa Riley announced that an allegation of race discrimination had been reported by a former player against the university’s head basketball coach. A letter by Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Williams and Tyler Allen Williams, a former UAFS student and basketball player, was posted on Facebook Aug. 31. The letter described what the Williamses called a racist act by Boone in regards to the Tyler Williams “dreadlocks” hairstyle. Williams, from Edmund, Okla., was a guard and the second-leading scorer for UAFS for the 2018-19 season.
In the posted letter, Williams and his parents said Boone, who was hired as the coach to replace Justin Bailey, who resigned in March, told Williams he did not like hair like his and he would not recruit players who had hair like his. In his 2018-19 roster photo, Williams sports chin-length dreadlocks that are pulled back from his face.
On Sept. 11, Riley reported that the university’s EOC officer did not find substantial evidence to support the claim of race discrimination but that “the process revealed a need for better communications when addressing a sensitive matter, particularly when raised by a student.” In her statement, Riley said the UAFS athletics department “will not condone or allow a policy, procedure, or practice – conveyed verbally or in writing – to dictate the hair styles or hair lengths for its student athletes.” Riley also said she would allocate resources to hire a director of campus diversity and inclusion.
The UAFS Black Student Association hosted a public forum Sept. 17 on conquering bias and improving understanding on campus. The forum, titled “Safe Space: Let’s Talk Race,” aimed to expand and engage the discussions around diversity, inclusion, race, and community. Boone did not attend that forum, a move that was questioned by several in attendance who wanted the chance to address him and hear what he had to say.
Boone said Wednesday he did not attend the forum because he thought doing so would be inappropriate and detract from the purpose of the forum.
“I was planning to go and actually thought I was going to be asked to on the panel. They chose not to do that, which I think was a good decision, because they didn’t want me to become a focal point of something that was supposed to be much bigger than me in terms of the discussion that was being held,” Boone said.
He added that once it was decided he would not be on the panel, he felt his attendance at the forum might discourage open discourse.
“I did not want to take away from anything that may have been or could have been discussed that might not have been if I were present. I didn’t not want to be what it was about. I thought there were more important issues to be discussed,” he said. “I sat over here in my office, and there were several times I contemplated walking over and trying to be the proverbial fly on the wall. … But I just really felt at the end of the day it would have been inappropriate for me to have attended.”
Boone did, however, use the media day as an opportunity to offer an apology to Tyler Williams, his family and to the community at large. He said he knows his words were not well chosen and he offended many in the community.
“I am truly sorry,” Boone said.
Now, he hopes everyone can move forward and concentrate on the team, which will start its season with a home game against Black Hills State University at 5:30 p.m. Saturday (Nov. 9) as part of the Coca Cola Conference Challenge. Boone said through the entire situation, his and his coaching staff’s main focus was the team.
“The number one thing, and that was my major concern, was our team. I couldn’t be more proud (of them) or more excited to be there coach,” Boone said.
He noted that of the 13 players on the team, seven are new to UAFS this season. Of the six returning players, only one has been with the team for more than one year.
“Basically you have 13 young men who are coming together that weekend (of the incident), and for them to galvanize as a group and to become a family and the support that they showed me and their teammates was phenomenal,” Boone said.
Boone said he will continue to focus on the players, knowing UAFS is a place where they can have tremendous young men in the basketball program, who can be great student athletes who graduate, and where they can have a championship basketball program.
“Our priority will always be about the young people, our students. … It is never about whether you are brown or black or yellow or white or green or whether you have long hair or no hair. It has always been about the size of your heart and the strength of your character. It is obvious when you see these young men that we are doing a pretty good job, and I am excited about moving forward,” Boone said.
Though Boone’s apology and words were welcomed, not everyone felt it was enough. In early October, The Sebastian County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) asked for a meeting with Riley to discuss the alleged discrimination. In a press release sent to the media by Fort Smith City Director André Good on behalf of Sebastian County NAACP President Jerry Jennings, the association said it seeks “transparency and justice” in the matter. In the release, Jennings said the NAACP branch “seeks to hold Chancellor Riley to her avowed assurance of a UAFS that is ‘an inclusive environment that values all members of our community.’”
Good attended Wednesday’s event and told Talk Business & Politics that Riley and Athletic Director Curtis Janz had met with some members of the Sebastian County Branch of the NAACP and what they said the university is doing and has planned “sounds very promising.”
He said that he cannot speak for the entire organization, but that he, personally, is not satisfied.
“I still want to see justice done for this young man who did nothing to be dismissed from this team,” Good said.
In a letter sent to Talk Business and Politics, signed by Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Williams and Tyler Williams, it stated, “Tyler did not choose to leave UAFS Men’s Basketball team on his own accord; Boone dismissed him.” Prior to his initial meeting with Boone, Williams had already completed course enrollment for the fall semester, completed a UAFS housing agreement and moved into his housing suite at UAFS, the letter stated.
“Our intentions and motive were for Tyler to continue his education at UAFS and graduate in May 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership and (as) a member of the UAFS Men’s Basketball team,” the letter states.
Good said while he is concerned with Williams, he and others in the community are committed to seeking justice and common ground.
“I was there today to support our student athletes. I attended the Lady Lions meet and greet and fully support UAFS women’s basketball Coach Tari Cummings, her staff and team. Today gave me an opportunity to meet some of the men’s basketball team, staff and even Coach Boone. We truly have some excellent student athletes here at UAFS. Tyler Williams was one of those students and was released without cause,” Good said.