Coaches: Kansas college wanted fewer Black athletes

Three former coaches at a Kansas community college allege in a lawsuit that the school wanted to reduce the number of Black student-athletes on campus

ByThe Associated Press
February 11, 2022, 12:45 PM

HIGHLAND, Kan. -- Three former coaches at a northeast Kansas community college allege in a lawsuit that college leaders actively worked to reduce the number of Black student-athletes on campus.

The coaches said in a federal lawsuit filed last week that Highland Community College leaders sought to “make Highland white again," KCUR reported.

Also this week, The Kansas City Star disclosed that Highland's president compared a Black football player to Hitler, whom she called “a great leader.”

The lawsuit alleges Highland officials sought to discourage Blacks from attending the school, intimidated Black student-athletes into leaving and told coaches not to recruit African Americans.

The lawsuit was filed by B.J. Smith, the former women’s basketball coach; Bradford Zinn, a former assistant coach; and Jered Ross, also a former assistant coach.

Zinn and Ross, who are Black, and Smith, who is white, left the school in 2020 after their contracts were not renewed when they refused to resign.

"The HCC administration acted in a concerted fashion to discriminate against Black student-athletes, and when challenged by coaches trying to do the right thing, reacted by smearing the reputations of those coaches, depriving them both of due process and future work possibilities,” said William Odle, their attorney.

The lawsuit names the college; its president, Deborah Fox; its athletic director, Bryan Dorrel; and a member of its board of trustees, Russell Karn.

Smith told KCUR said that what happened at the college “is one of those things that a lot of people will initially go, ‘Well, that can’t be true in today’s world, that can’t happen.’”

Smith was the school’s winningest coach with a 228-35 overall record. And all of his players graduated, according to the lawsuit.

Highland has about 3,200 students and is located about 80 miles (130 kilometers) northwest of Kansas City, Missouri. Fewer than 6% of the students are African American but half or more of the student-athletes, until recently, were Black and came from out of state, according to the lawsuit.

Fox, who became the school's president in March 2019, said in an email that the school “adamantly denies” the coaches' allegations.

She said the lawsuit will allow the college to present its side of the story.

“Unlike social media comments and postings, the United States District Court for the District of Kansas provides a procedure in which Highland Community College can ‘set the record straight’ regarding their allegations,” she said.

In a Feb. 8 editorial, The Star reported that Fox told a former assistant football coach in October that Hitler was “a great leader.”

In a brief audio clip accompanying the editorial, Fox said: “You know, even though we don’t like it, Hitler was a great leader. I mean, I’m not saying … I don’t, to emulate in any way, but he somehow, even for evil, moved and were able to do these things, and, you know, it’s terrifying.”

Fox made the remarks during a meeting about the alleged harassment of Black student-athletes, during which she questioned a Black football player’s leadership skills and his influence on other Black teammates.

In an email to KCUR, Fox said she was trying to describe “negative leadership” and the short audio clip was taken from a long conversation. She said she had apologized to the students, faculty and college “for my poor choice of words.”

The lawsuit mirrors one filed on behalf of four Black students in March 2020 by the ACLU of Kansas, which alleged that Highland expelled Black students for minor or bogus infractions and subjected them to arbitrary searches, surveillance and harassment on campus. In a settlement, the school agreed to pay up to $15,000 to each of them and pledged to provide anti-discrimination and Fourth Amendment training to staff and administrators.

Highland suspended Smith, Zinn and Ross in December 2020, accusing them of academic misconduct, including doing homework for the students. The National Junior College Athletic Association did not find any evidence to support the allegations.

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