Yes, We “Quit” A Cheer Gym Over Racism

“She didn’t realize the severity of using such a term.”

That was the first response I received nearly two weeks after an adult coach — and a mother of an athlete — used the “N word” in the cheer gym where my 13-year-old daughter trained. For more than 10 days, there was silence from the owners, the administrators, and the coaches. But the young Black woman who who heard it spoke out. She took to Facebook Live the day after the incident, speaking of the slurs, curses, and concerning behaviors of many of the adults involved in the gym.

After that video, both the woman who used the slur so easily (who is white) and the young woman the slur was directed at were both fired from the gym. But no official word. Supposedly, those who run the cheer program hoped it would all just go away with time. Until it didn’t.

Earlier this week, the owner of the gym was finally forced to do a town hall. For our family, though, that town hall only raised more questions than it did provide answers. Going in, my wife and I were concerned with how we could continue to send our daughter (and our money) to a gym that didn’t have a zero-tolerance policy when it came to hate speech. As the parents of two children of color, how could we teach our own kids there were no excuses when it comes to racism and xenophobia if we tolerated it in our own lives?

It wasn’t until an hour into the “presentation” that the gym owner finally admitted he had made a mistake by not addressing the incident with the gym community sooner. But it was caged in the frame that we all just needed to move forward from it. From the start, he preached it was time to get back to family, and that this was a “lose-lose” situation for everyone. He lamented losing two good coaches, including the one who slung the N-word so easily. He then said both parties had to be let go, because the recipient took her grievances public and to Facebook Live. He added that he wasn’t saying anyone was “overreacting,” (meaning parents like me and my wife), and that we just need to get past this together.

It even came out in the discussion that the N word had been used, casually, many times before in the same gym, but supposedly not within earshot of younger athletes, but who knows?

There was no disputing that an adult coach, the mother to an athlete in the gym, used the N word in respect to an athlete in the gym.

There was no disputing that the N word had been used many times before in the same gym, on the same mat where my daughter was training.

There was no disputing that the gym owners and some other coaches equated a parent and coach using a racial slur to a young adult taking to Facebook to voice her concerns about racism and other issues in a place she called home.

And there was no disputing that we just could no longer let our daughter train in that gym, with her teammates, any more.

This would have been my daughter’s seventh year in competitive cheerleading. For six years, she was part of a Pop Warner team and two all-star teams in New Jersey. With her all-stars, she won grand championships after grand championships. With me as one of her Pop Warner coaches for four years, she took a top-10 finish at Nationals and a second place finish at Globals. For the majority of her years on this earth, cheer was her life. Now she is done.

It would be easy for us to simply chalk this up to moving from New Jersey to South Carolina. But I refuse to accept that. Originally, we selected this new gym because of the diversity we saw on the mat, of the youth athletes. At the town hall, though, the vast majority of attending parents were Black. Many of the white families simply stayed home.

No, the issue lies squarely with the adults in the room and their priorities. The adults who chose to be silent rather than confront an ugly and difficult issue. The adults who just want to move on. The adults who are more offended that their dirty laundry was aired on public social media. And the adults who appear to tolerate a little racism as long as it means winning.

Even after the airing of these issues and a lackluster (in my opinion) response to what I see as a crisis, the next morning parents were taking to text to say that “we get very distracted and focus on the negative waaaaay too easily.” Others called for parents to be “open minded to hear BOTH sides of the story.” And of course, there was the call the “get FOCUSED, friends! Eyes on the prize!”

Let there be no doubt that I love to see my daughter win on the mat. When we took second place at YCADA Globals, there were tears in my eyes as my daughter and my 15 cheer-daughters had the competition of their lives, performing better than I had ever seen. We dealt with many issues and a lot of drama that year, but we addressed it and worked through it all as a family. But we did it without a hint of racism or hate in our voices and our actions. For all four seasons I coached, we never preached a “win, no matter what it costs” mentality. In fact, there were times that we coaches even told the girls that if they couldn’t put aside their petty tween squabbles for the good of the team, we would cancel the season then and there.

Instead, I always urged my girls to work hard, do their best, support each other, and love each other no matter what.

My wife and I spent hours talking with our daughter about this issue. Despite what the adults in the room were saying, the drama and the issues had seeped into the squad and were being felt by the athletes. We may have thought this was just an issue for the adults in the room, but every teen and tween had seen the videos, had heard the accusations, and had witnessed the silence from their coaches and administrators.

So it was with heavy heart that we informed the gym that we were withdrawing our daughter, and that we just didn’t feel comfortable sending her to that gym any more. It was a hard decision, based on our daughter’s years of commitment to the sport, but it was also the right decision for us as a family and for her as a human being.

Within hours, the gym charged us a $500 “Quitter’s Fee.” (Which I will counter with an equal donation to the South Carolina NAACP.) On this issue, with these concerns, for the first time in my life I am proud to be branded a quitter. And I’m equally proud to teach my two children exactly why we quit and why it is essential that they do the same in the face of racism and the excusing of racist actions and words.

Father; education advocacy pro; founder of Driving Force Institute; author of Eduflack blog; VP of Coker University; education agitator