Referees have been reprimanded and students warned after two Holy Spirit High School students dressed as a monkey and a banana taunted visiting Atlantic City players during a game last week.
The Cape-Atlantic League’s supervising board of referees said the act was offensive and should not have been tolerated, especially “in these times of sensitive racial issues.” Video footage shows fans using a shower-curtain contraption for a skit of some kind and others dressed in a monkey and banana costume dancing and at times jumping on the sideline in close proximity to the playing area on the court in the Holy Spirit student section.
A Holy Spirit official acknowledged the conduct violated league rules for sportsmanship and said it would not happen again. But no students will be punished because of the incident, said Jay Connell, the school’s athletic director.
Connell said the school made an announcement over its public address system warning students not to participate in any further offensive or unsportsmanslike conduct during sporting events. That announcement was made after Connell received emails from the league and an organization of basketball referees questioning the school’s decision to allow the the students’ costumes.
“I am not going to kick anyone out of school or whip anybody. All I can do is apologize, I can’t take it back,” Connell said. “There is no punishment. The punishment is that it will be an event that will not happen again, and that is the punishment for Holy Spirit.”
Connell and Atlantic City High School athletic director Anthony Nistico said the performance by the students was taken from a similar one done at a recent Arizona State University basketball game, but those students did not wear monkey and banana costumes.
“It was so offensive. We have Caucasian players, but our team is predominantly black. If you look at the film from the game, Holy Spirit’s starting five are African American,” Nistico said.
“If I was there, I would’ve stopped the game and told the team to go to the locker room,” he said.
He didn’t attend the Feb. 18 game because the Atlantic City girls basketball team was hosting a game against Holy Spirit, he said.
“Because it is Black History Month, it makes it even more offensive and insensitive. It’s unfortunate that it would happen in this day and age,” Nistico said.
The two teams met on the court again Friday night at Absegami High School in the semifinals of a league tournament.
Paul Spinelli, secretary of the Cumberland-Cape Board No. 196 Basketball Officials of New Jersey, said it is concerning that Holy Spirit allowed this conduct, especially the costumes.
Atlantic City assistant basketball coach Jason Lantz said as soon as coaches saw the students in the costumes on the sideline it was pointed out to the referees.
“It was allowed to continue into the first half, and the kids played through it. I have never encountered anything like this at the high school level,” said Lantz, who referred to the incident as offensive.
Despite the distraction, Atlantic City defeated Holy Spirit 54-53 that night.
Lantz said that after the game, parents and fans from Holy Spirit approached him to apologize and expressed how offended they were by the incident.
Holy Spirit coach Jamie Gillespie said after Friday’s game that the Aug. 18 incident has been blown out of proportion.
“There's absolutely nothing that was intended to be racial whatsoever. It was a group of kids trying to have fun with something they saw on television,” Gillespie said. “There was no malice there whatsoever. If anybody wants to make it out to be that, it's not. We have a respectable school community. We have four of our starters that are African-American kids. I mean, come on. That's not what that's about. It was just kids not thinking through what their perception should be, but there was absolutely nothing racial and somebody is making something racial about it."
Immediately after learning about the incident, Nistico lodged complaints with Mike Gatley, president of the Cape-Atlantic League, and Spinelli. Nistico said he also watched video of the incident.
In an email to Connell, Nistico said the video does “not reflect the high standards of sportsmanship that, you, Holy Spirit and the CAL have come to expect.”
In an emailed response obtained by The Press, Gatley replied the costumes were not only offensive but showed extremely poor judgment by the students, the parents of the students and ultimately Holy Spirit.
Gatley also wrote in the email that the “Shower Curtain” apparatus — which was used as a sort of a stage curtain — was not only hazardous but compromised the integrity of the basketball game and constituted at least two violations of the newly established CAL Spectator Code of Conduct, as well as multiple violations of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s Spectator Code of Conduct. The NJSIAA governs most high school sports in the state.
“You, the administration, and Holy Spirit High School in general are very fortunate that the actions of those students did not create the type of situation that no administration wants to have to deal with in a tightly contested athletic contest,” Gatley wrote.
“What I am appalled at is there are adults there that let this happen. These two students were allowed to walk into the gym in these costumes and with this shower curtain. What were the adults thinking? Where were the refs?” Nistico said.
Spinelli, in a separate email to Connell, said the referees’ failure to stop the students, who jumped from behind the curtain as Atlantic City players shot their free throws, “was gross misjudgment on their part.” The officials “could of and should of used their authority and enforced unsportsmanlike conduct for these acts,” Spinelli wrote.
The game officials received a poor rating for that game, Spinelli said, and now know what they should do in a circumstance such as this.
“I hope in the future I will not have to deal with this type of action. If so, I will not just drop it but will forward it to the NJSIAA for review,” he said.
Staff Writer John Russo contributed to this report.
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