Sewanee community rattled by 'vile racial epithets' hurled at visiting lacrosse team

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A sign for the university is seen on the campus of the University of the South on Friday, July 21, in Sewanee, Tenn.

Just over a month after Sewanee-The University of the South's first Black vice chancellor and president revealed he'd endured repeated attacks and vandalism at his campus home since he became the school's leader last year, a small group of students hurled "the most vile racial epithets" at a visiting lacrosse team during a weekend match.

The vice chancellor, Reuben E. Brigety II, released details about the incident in an email to the campus community and in a public statement on Sunday, which included a personal message to those responsible letting them know the university is determined to identify them.

On Saturday, the university, also known as Sewanee, was hosting the men's lacrosse team from Emmanuel College for a match when "a few of the Sewanee students hurled the most vile racial epithets (to include the "N-word" and other appalling epithets directed at people of color) toward members of the visiting Emmanuel team, whose roster includes white, African American, Asian American, Native American, and Latino men," Brigety wrote.

"So pronounced were the shouted slurs in the third quarter that the game officials on the field ordered that Sewanee fans be cleared before play could continue," he added.

Attendance at the match had already been limited to student-athletes, coaches, game management staff and students due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

On social media, students, parents and others called the acts "disgraceful," "shameful" and "sickening."

"I received a call from my child, who currently plays on the lacrosse team, after the game," one parent commented on a public Facebook post. "What should have been an exciting call about their first win was an extremely disappointed player who was embarrassed by what had happened."

Brigety himself was not present at the match, he said, but "upon hearing the disturbing news, I went to the lacrosse field to meet with the visiting team."

"As Vice-Chancellor, on behalf of the entire Sewanee community, I personally apologized to our guests for the conduct of these students," he wrote. "I told them that Sewanee does not tolerate such behavior, and that we considered the assaults on their dignity completely unacceptable. Likewise, our athletic director and coaches apologized to their colleagues from Emmanuel, and [Athletic Director Mark Webb] has informed the conference of this incident."

In a statement, the university's athletics department said it "condemns the behavior of those who attended Saturday's men's lacrosse game against Emmanuel College and hurled racist epithets at opposing players. We have joined Vice-Chancellor Brigety and our lacrosse coaches and student-athletes in personally conveying our apologies to Emmanuel College and its student-athletes, staff, and coaches."

While initial efforts to identify the students who shouted the racial slurs were unsuccessful, Brigety said the university is working to find them "so that appropriate measures can be taken, as I assured the Emmanuel players and coaches when I spoke with them."

In his letter to the campus community, Brigety made a direct call to those responsible to turn themselves in followed by a call to the campus community for help in identifying them if none come forward.

"To the few students who are responsible for the epithets shouted yesterday, as I know of no other way to reach you," he wrote, "you have until noon tomorrow, Monday, March 15, to inform the Dean of Student's Office that you are responsible We hope you will do so."

As of Monday afternoon, the university had received some information that could be helpful in identifying the students, Sewanee spokesperson Laurie Saxton said in an email, adding that the school uses "a range of disciplinary actions and sanctions in response to student behavior" and that potential penalties would be clearer once all of the facts are known.

"Though these horrible racial insults were shouted by only a few of our students, how we respond is a reflection on our collective integrity and honor," Brigety wrote in his statement. "I therefore must ask anyone in the Sewanee community who may know the identities of the individuals who shouted these racist epithets yesterday to get in touch with the University."

In its own statement, the university noted that multiple student organizations have been outspoken in their renunciation of racism of any kind on the Sewanee campus and that the school has offered counseling support "to students who are in need of assistance in coping with the hate speech incident."

Both the university and its athletics department said they are starting a "comprehensive review" of what transpired in an effort to find steps the university can take to help prevent similar incidents, including changes in the positioning of Sewanee staff and security "so they can stay attuned to fan behavior more fully than they were yesterday and are empowered to act to stop such behavior should that be necessary," Brigety wrote.

"This behavior does not reflect the values of our University and our athletics department, and it will not be tolerated at Sewanee," read the statement from the athletics department.

Just last month during a recorded weekly service called Growing in Grace, Brigety revealed he and his family have endured several acts of vandalism at his home since he became vice chancellor in February 2020, the Times Free Press reported previously.

"During my first semester here at the university, Chen Hall, our home, has been repeatedly vandalized by phantoms who came at night," he said at the time. "They have trashed our lawn with beer cans and liquor bottles. They have left threatening messages on pilfered signs near our back door. They have taken measures to ensure that my family and I saw the indecent insults that they left behind."

Neither he nor the university speculated whether the acts were racially motivated.

According to a racial breakdown of federal data on Sewanee's enrollment in fall 2018, 81% of students were white, 5% were Black or African American, another 5% were Hispanic, 4% were nonresident alien, 3% were two or more races and 2% were Asian.

Sewanee has direct ties to the Confederate South, slavery, Jim Crow measures on campus and other segregationist efforts, according to the research summary for a six-year project launched by the university in 2017 to investigate its "historical entanglements with slavery and slavery's legacies."

As for Saturday's incident, Brigety said "the actions demonstrated by some of our students are a blatant violation of our collective commitment to [living in unity]. They were even more egregious because they were directed at guests whom we had invited into our community to compete against our student-athletes."

And while Sewanee "is geographically remote, the university unfortunately is not removed from the issues and behavior that continue to trouble the rest of American society," read the university's statement. "The university believes in forgiveness and reconciliation, but such behavior will not be tolerated at Sewanee. Reporting of any acts of hate or bias is encouraged, and any such reports are reviewed and taken seriously. The university means to create a welcoming environment for all people and continues to work toward that goal.

"Though this is a painful episode for our community, I am hopeful that the demonstration of our commitment to our values of dignity and decency will help us to heal," Brigety added.

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.