Amanda Kerr and Jeff Hartsell, Post and Courier, October 22, 2014
After firing him Monday, Charleston County schools Superintendent Nancy McGinley offered Academic Magnet High School football coach Bud Walpole his job back Wednesday. The reversal came after two tumultuous days of intense scrutiny over the school district’s decision to fire the longtime coach for his team’s postgame watermelon ritual.
McGinley and Walpole met Wednesday afternoon and, according to McGinley’s statement, the coach acknowledged that his team’s tradition of smashing watermelons as part of a postgame victory celebration “could be viewed in a negative way.”
“He agreed that we will work together on increasing diversity awareness for students and the community,” McGinley said.
As part of the district’s job offer, the statement said that Walpole was required to provide a “written statement of commitment” to teach students to better respect the differences of others; attend any sensitivity training sessions offered by the school district; and to counsel his players before games to be “extra vigilant in their actions when dealing with others of different racial or ethnic backgrounds.”
“I would like to invite our community to join together with me and Coach Walpole to use this as a teachable moment for the benefit of our children,” McGinley said in the statement.
Walpole has accepted McGinley’s offer, said attorney Dwayne Green, a family friend who has been advising the coach.
“He’s very happy, relieved and excited to get back to coaching,” Green said.
Raptor players were just as happy to have their coach back.
“All day, the only thing the whole student body could think about was coach Walpole and getting him back and making everything right,” said Adam Ackerman, a senior. “I think it would be good for us, because we knew we lost something big when we lost coach Walpole. He led the team, and his main point every day was to do our job. We did our job to get him back and I think he’ll be proud of us.”
The players learned of Walpole’s return just after practice. The Raptors are 6-2 this season and in the midst of one of the best seasons in school history.
The district dismissed Walpole from his coaching duties Monday following an investigation last week into allegations the team had been participating in a “watermelon ritual with students making monkey sounds” as part of a post-game celebration.
McGinley at a news conference Tuesday said players told two school district representatives that following a victory, the team would stand in a circle chanting and smash a watermelon with a caricature face drawn on the fruit with black marker. Several of the watermelons were named Bonds-Wilson, McGinley said, which is a reference to the high school’s location in North Charleston. The Bonds-Wilson Campus pays tribute to a historically black school previously on that site.
School Board member Michael Miller reported the team’s tradition to the school district on Oct. 13. He raised concerns about the racial overtones of the tradition after hearing from a parent of a Military Magnet Academy student who was offended by the ritual, which the team performed following its defeat of Military Magnet on Sept. 5.
Miller, on Tuesday, called Walpole’s removal as coach a “fair outcome,” saying that the coach’s decision to allow the team to practice a “racially insensitive” ritual was an “error in judgment.”
The Charleston Branch of the NAACP, whose members came out in support of Walpole’s firing, issued a statement Wednesday calling the team’s tradition “inappropriate and racially insensitive.” The group likened the students’ actions to an overwhelmingly black football team urinating and stomping on the Confederate flag as a victory ritual.
“All of the elements of the ritual reflect familiar and insulting stereotypes about African-Americans,” the group’s statement said.
Von Bakanic, associate professor of sociology at the College of Charleston, said it’s also important to consider whether the stereotype that associates race with watermelons is one that is relevant to teens today.
“Cultural stereotypes change over time,” Bakanic said. “People may or may not be aware of the stereotypes that were there for their generation, and they don’t mean the same things, not only to people based on their age, but also every person is interpreting things from a different standpoint.
“To take anything about watermelon and say it is racist is responding to the stereotype rather than the melon itself,” Bakanic said. “Anything can be perceived in any way anyone chooses to.”
Support for Walpole’s reinstatement was almost immediate. Academic Magnet junior defensive end Darius Nwokike, the only African-American player on the Raptors’ roster, started a petition on the website change.org Monday asking the Charleston County School District to reinstate his coach. By Wednesday evening, the petition had more than 4,000 signatures, nearly doubling from the day before.