By Mark Bryant | Special to The OBSERVER

The Greater Sacramento region has been hit by at least three incidents of racism in high school sports, including two cases that have caused the schools to cancel their varsity football seasons.

On Sept. 26, the Amador High canceled its varsity season over what officials called a “highly inappropriate group chat” named “Kill the Blacks.”

Days later, on Oct. 1, a more racially charged controversy struck at River Valley High in Yuba City. River Valley football players were told their season was over amid allegations that members of the team conducted a “slave auction” of Black teammates, in a staged prank filmed and posted to TikTok.

Rick Callender, president of the California/Hawaii State Conference NAACP, denounced the actions of the student-athletes in the video. “The video and actions of the students involved is absolutely deplorable and we are disgusted that this incident ever took place. … Racist actions on the sports field have been occurring with alarming and increased frequency in schools throughout California.”

NAACP officials “will be pushing the state for data to be collected statewide so that we can understand the prevalence of how often the activities are occurring in schools throughout California,” Callender said.

The Amador Buffaloes shut down their season last month amid allegations of a “highly inappropriate group chat,” with alleged racial undertones, according to the Amador County Unified School District. Subsequent investigation brought to light a Snapchat online thread named “Kill the Blacks.” One student denied in an interview that this online title was racist in nature, contending instead that it was taken out of context. The season cancellation still stands.

“This was an extremely difficult decision,” ACUSD superintendent Torie Gibson said. “The scope of the allegations escalated the need for an external investigation by an independent investigator, with some of the allegations being referred to law enforcement.”

Gibson added, “The goal of this process is to obtain all the facts in this case in order to make accurate and sound decisions so that we can learn and grow from this situation and become better as a result of it.”

“As the superintendent of schools, it is ultimately my responsibility to address any alleged violations of law involving staff or students. Staff and students are entitled to a safe, welcoming and nurturing environment. This is our opportunity to live our values and beliefs, and we must act.”

Amador High is in Sutter Creek in Amador County, 45 miles southeast of Sacramento, in what would be considered the Sierra Nevada foothills region.

The most egregious and troubling act of high school racism occurred in Yuba County, 40 miles north of Sacramento, where members of the River Valley School Falcons allegedly forced Black students into a “slave auction.”

In a video discovered by Yuba City Unified School District administrators upon investigation, three Black players are clearly seen standing against a wall, clad only in their underwear, while other members of the football team can be seen and heard shouting prices and bidding on the “slaves.”

District Superintendent Doreen Osumi also condemned the actions. “Reenacting a slave auction as a prank tells us that we have a great deal of work to do with our students so they can distinguish between intent and impact.” she said in a statement. “They may have thought this skit was funny, but it is not; it is unacceptable and requires us to look honestly and deeply at issues of systemic racism.”

“The recording clearly demonstrates that this situation was orchestrated and organized, which underscores my concern that students spent time contemplating this terrible act without the slightest regard that this action is hateful and hurtful,” Osumi noted. “They may argue that it was a joke, and they intended no harm, but the fact is that this is not only harmful, it is disgraceful.”

Tonya Mack, a Yuba City resident, property owner and Yuba-Sutter Chamber of Commerce board member, said lack of diversity and awareness was a factor in the incident. 

“One of the boys had a belt placed around his neck,” she said. “This is extremely disturbing for a lot of reasons. It is critical that we make this a meaningful experience for everyone. This is not only racism, but insensitivity and arrogance.

“Disciplining the students involved is an opportunity for them to learn and gain support, in addition to holding them accountable. The other side of discipline is education about equity, diversity and inclusion. It is important that we educate and empower these young men. We need this to be a teaching moment.”

Racist incidents have not been limited to boys sports. In March, disciplinary action was taken against a student at Oak Ridge High in El Dorado Hills for heckling a Black player with ape sounds at a girls soccer playoff game. The game was between Oak Ridge and Buchanan High of Clovis, a Fresno suburb. El Dorado Hills is a Sierra Nevada foothills community 30 miles east of Sacramento.

“Our first step was doing everything we could to apologize,” said Oak Ridge Principal Aaron Palm, noting that he sent apology letters to Buchanan’s principal, the school, the community and the girls soccer team, and also spoke with the affected girl’s family.

“There has to be a swift, immediate action and it needs to be a bold statement,” said Jasara Gillette, Buchanan girls soccer head coach.

Added Palm: “We are committed to doing everything in our power to make sure an incident like this never happens again. We have put a lot of time into respecting each other’s differences at Oak Ridge over the years. But we need to do more.”

The NAACP’s Callender called for tougher measures against racist actions in high school programs in California. “We are calling on all California high schools to implement regulations that ensure the safety of students of color, to continue to hold conversations with students on why this behavior is racist and unacceptable, to hold students involved accountable, and to continue to educate students on the history of Black Americans in this country,” he declared. “We will not sit idly by and allow these racist behaviors to continue to grow legs and run around our California school system.”

Michael Garrison, commissioner of the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school sports in California, also weighed in on the recent incidents. “I just feel bad for the communities, the schools and the districts that are dealing with these things,” he said. “It’s just an unfortunate situation.”