Player Calling Obama a "Watermelon Eating Baboon" Triggers Investigation into Saint Louis University Baseball Team

by

PHOTO COURTESY OF FLICKR/PAUL SABLEMAN

A baseball player at Saint Louis University called Obama a "fucking watermelon eatin baboon" in a private group chat — and now, one year later, his teammates' failure to condemn that racism has landed the club in hot water.

And that's because what happened in response to the comment was nothing. No one replied to suggest the language was inappropriate or upbraid the player.


Instead, one player at the Jesuit university quietly took a screenshot of the conversation and sent it to a former student manager, who is black. In recent weeks, that screenshot has triggered an official complaint to the university, followed by an investigation, calls for the team to be barred from postseason play and, last week, allegations of retaliation against the student manager.

The team's coach, Darin Hendrickson, did not respond to our requests seeking comment Friday.

The group chat took place in May 2015 on a trip to Washington, D.C. Members of a pitchers-only chat on the group messaging app GroupMe exchanged a series of messages about grabbing some food. But the thread morphed into a discussion that wouldn't feel out of place in a minor-league Klan meeting. 

"The kfc in the White House?" one player wrote joked. Another player added, "They got rivers of the grape kind there." 

It only got worse. Another message queried, "I heard they got a colored running the country.. This Tru?"

The response: "Unfortunately... It is."

That was followed by, "Fucking watermelon eatin baboon." 
slubaseballchat.jpg

One pitcher took a screenshot and texted it to his roommate, senior Brenden Twomey.

Twomey had recently decided to leave his position with the team. He wasn't all that surprised. 

"I had an opportunity to be around these players and was able to see the culture that was present in the baseball organization," says Twomey. "I think him sending the screenshot to me was kind of a reassurance of, look at them, they're back at it again." 

Nearly a year passed, however, before Twomey acted to expose that culture. On April 4, his girlfriend filed a formal bias incident report with the university. She also included an unredacted version of the screenshot.

Last week, the screenshot went public. A redacted version was posted to Facebook by the incoming president of SLU's Black Student Alliance, Jonathan Pulphus. 

"What kind of value-driven campus is this where people think they can represent the university and spew this awful hatred?" Pulphus wrote. 

Two days later, Twomey says he awoke to discover his roommate had sloshed chewing tobacco spit on the floor outside his bedroom door, as well as the kitchen sink. Fingernail clippings had been prominently placed on the towel Twomey uses to clean his glasses.

(In a Wednesday Facebook post from Pulphus, Twomey's roommate was identified as SLU pitcher Brett Shimanovsky — in fact, Shimanovsky appears to be the very same player/roommate who earlier provided Twomey with a screenshot of the racist chat thread. Twomey himself declined to answer questions about his roommate's identity, but says the roommate has since voluntarily moved out. Shimanovsky did not respond to a message seeking comment.)

Twomey documented the mess on video, concluding, "I consider this retaliation for filing a bias incident report." 

The SLU student newspaper, University News, reported last week that an investigation into the original group-messaging incident was closed on April 7. Since the offensive messages had been sent within a private group chat, rather than directed at one person, Dr. Mona Hicks, Associate Vice President and Dean of Students, said that the school could not punish the students. (The student newspaper's report was written by SLU senior Emily Higginbotham, who is also an intern with the RFT this semester.)

“If I were to directly state to you, ‘You suck because of all of your social identities that God gave you.’ That would be wrong. That would require some adjudication,” Hicks told University News. “We also need to respect laws. This was a private conversation, or at least the perception of private between in-group parties.”

And so instead of disciplinary action, the baseball team has held meetings with school administrators and has "begun a process of addressing bias, biased language and biased incidents within the baseball team," says Dr. Jonathan Smith, who wields the lengthy title of Special Assistant to the President for Diversity and Community Engagement.

The players' messages ran counter to the "fundamental premise" of what the Jesuit institution stands for, Smith tells Riverfront Times.

"Statements that are racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic are statements that absolutely do not reflect our values or our mission." 

Although the team hasn't released a formal statement, the team's four captains issued an apology of their own.

"We, too, are frustrated, and we feel that the comments do not accurately reflect the values that we hold. In light of the incident, the SLU baseball program and athletic department are working to actively address and thwart any action that threatens our inclusive community," said the letter, which was signed by students Michael Bozarth, Josh Bunselmeyer, Matt Eckelman and Braxton Martinez.

Twomey is frustrated by the lack of action on the part of the school. He considers the captains' letter — which was sent only the school newspaper, and not to him or other offended students — an insult. He believes the team should be punished by having to forego the conference tournament.

However, Twomey says the team's head coach, Darin Hendrickson, called him last week to discuss the incident. 

"He said he was aware there as a culture problem on the baseball team, a culture problem of entitlement, privilege and immaturity. He also said it was one of his biggest regrets that he hadn’t recruited more diverse players." 

Adds Twomey, "There are racial issues in the SLU community that need to be confronted." In 2014, after protesters occupied part of the campus, the university agreed to promote diversity and increase resources for black students in an agreement called the Clock Tower Accords.

"It started a dialogue and frankly it needs to be continued," Twomey says.   

"Hopefully," he adds, "this issue will light a fire under the university and get them to really dedicate themselves to the SLU mission of diversity and inclusion."  

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_ Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

comment