Charleston County School District officials released more details this afternoon about a post-game ritual involving a watermelon that led the district to remove football coach Eugene “Bud” Walpole from his coaching position at Academic Magnet High School. The details were released during a press conference that became heated as parents from the school called for Walpole’s reinstatement and demanded apologies from Superintendent Nancy McGinley.
According to McGinley, interviews with students indicated that upperclassmen on the AMHS Raptors football team came up with the post-game ritual prior to their Sept. 5 victory against Military Magnet Academy.
“It was reported to us that a player was selected to smash the watermelon … Players would gather in a circle and smash the watermelon while others either were standing in a group or locking arms and making chanting sounds that were described as ‘Ooo ooo ooo,’ and several players demonstrated the motion,” McGinley said.
McGinley said the watermelon was named at each game — “Junior” after the team’s first victory against Military Magnet High School on Sept. 5, then “Bonds Wilson Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5” after the team’s five subsequent victories. (Bonds Wilson is the name of the joint campus that Academic Magnet shares with Charleston County School of the Arts.) One of the players also drew a face on the watermelon with a Sharpie. “It was a face that could be considered a caricature,” McGinley says.
McGinley said Walpole had not been fired from his teaching position at the school, but he was removed from his positions coaching the football team and the girls’ basketball team. She said at the press conference that she had not yet spoken with Coach Walpole, but that she would meet with him and then report her findings to the school board at a later meeting.
“An allegation was brought to my attention from one of the board members that the Academic Magnet High School football team has practiced a watermelon ritual with students making monkey sounds as part of a post-game celebration,” McGinley said. “This board member was clearly concerned about racial stereotypes related to this type of ritual.”
McGinley presented her findings to school board members in an executive session today, but she said she would make another presentation to them after meeting with Walpole. It remained unclear at the meeting whether the school board would be able to reinstate Walpole as a coach. School board member Tom Ducker said the board “probably will make some kind of a decision on where we go from here” after hearing from McGinley following her meeting with Walpole.
“Everything’s on the table, so it really will depend upon that conversation that they have with Dr. McGinley and what Dr. McGinley says after the interview with the coach and what her recommendation is,” Ducker said.
The instigating incident
McGinley said that on Mon. Oct. 13, a parent from Military Magnet High School raised a concern about the postgame ritual with school board member Michael Miller. Miller brought the concern to McGinley’s attention, and McGinley says she asked Principal Judith Peterson to investigate.
“She reported back to me that the coaches said they were aware of this ritual following victories and they did not observe cultural insensitivity,” McGinley said. However, based on Miller’s report that the team engaged in a “tribal-like chant that is animalistic or monkey-like,” McGinley says she sent Associate Superintendent Louis Martin and a district Diversity Committee advisor to investigate at the school on Oct. 16.
According to McGinley, the football team was taken to a lecture hall and players were interviewed individually by Martin. McGinley says the two questions asked of every student were, “What do you know about the watermelon incident?” and “Do you see anything potentially sensitive about that issue?”
McGinley says that according to the student interviews, the team brought a watermelon to games and traditionally kept it on the bench during every game this season. However, at an Oct. 10 game against Garrett Academy of Technology, the students accidentally left the melon on the bus and delayed their postgame ritual until they returned to the AMHS campus in North Charleston, where they proceeded to smash the watermelon in a courtyard. This took place during a freshman lock-in at the school, and McGinley says several school employees witnessed the incident and the team was disciplined for disruption.
McGinley said she and Principal Peterson told the team to cease the ritual last week, and Monday night the district notified Walpole that he had been relieved of his duties as head coach. Coach Andrew Rusciolelli will serve as interim head coach for the two remaining games of the season.
“The perceptions and the practices that were part of this ritual were not something that the adults should have sanctioned, and therefore we took action yesterday to relieve the head coach of his responsibilities,” McGinley said.
Military Magnet, the school from which the complaint originated, is majority-black, along with all but two of the teams on the AMHS football team’s season schedule.
A member of the AMHS football team started an online petition to reinstate Walpole, and the petition has so far garnered more than 1,800 signatures.
Parents at the press conference angrily questioned McGinley about the decision to remove Walpole until she announced that the press conference was over and walked out of the room.
“Where are you going, ma’am?” one parent asked as McGinley headed for a side door in the school board room at 75 Calhoun St.
Connie Biggs, president of the AMHS Booster Club, said the so-called “monkey sounds” from the ritual were “football grunts” reminiscent of what she had heard in the movie Remember the Titans. She told McGinley that the face drawn on the watermelon looked like “a happy celebration picture.”
Biggs does not have a child on the football team, but she said parents were upset that district officials interviewed students without getting parental consent. She says district employees interviewed the team members for four-and-a-half hours.
Biggs’ husband, John Biggs, said the team is multiracial and that there was nothing racist implied in the watermelon ritual. “There was nothing racial about this until it was made racial by someone else,” John said. “To me, these are the people that are racist. They’re trying to turn an innocent bonding experience of a high school football team into some kind of racial slur that it’s not.”
Jenifer Lake, a parent whose son played football under Walpole’s coaching in a previous seasons, says she saw Walpole discipline players for acting in an unsportsmanlike manner.
“If anyone did anything that was not sportsmanlike or of the proper conduct, they got benched,” Lake said. “He didn’t put up with anything. He’s a true Southern gentleman who believes in good sportsmanship.”
Larry Kobrovsky, a state school board member and former member of the Charleston County school board, attended the meeting to stand in opposition to the decision and to ask McGinley questions. He said he thought the school district owed Walpole and the team an apology.
“It’s absurd, I think. Racism is real, but when you stretch it to the point of absurdity you diminish the reality of it,” Kobrovsky said. “I think they need to act like adults and apologize to the parents and their kids.”
At the press conference, Kobrovsky asked school board chair Cindy Bohn Coats if she thought the district had made the right decision in relieving Walpole of his coaching duties. “I feel we need to continue to have the conversation,” Coats said.