The two youth hockey teams sharing a bus for a tournament in Canada were all white except for Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre.
That was nothing new for the 13-year-old from Montreal. He was used to being one of very few players of color on the ice.
But when he stepped off the bus that day, he experienced something so ugly that it has stuck with him for the past 30 years.
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One of the opposing players shouted at his team: “Hey, we can’t wait to play you. We are going to kick your ass and kick your (N-word) ass, too.”
Grand-Pierre, who would go on to become the first Black player in the history of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets franchise in 2000, didn’t respond. It helped that all of his white teammates rushed to his defense. And it didn’t hurt that Grand-Pierre played well in a victory.
But there was a deep sadness he had never felt before.
“It was sad and heartbreaking,” said Grand-Pierre, now 43 and a television studio analyst for the Blue Jackets on Fox Sports Ohio. “You don’t realize how powerful or hateful that is at that age.”
‘Ignorance is everywhere’: Navigating racial inequities in hockey
Grand-Pierre, whose parents were born in Haiti, was a victim of the racial inequities that have been rooted in the sports world for decades: The hockey players were white. The quarterbacks were white. Those who managed athletic programs were white.
Long after integration proved that they could help teams win, Black athletes across the spectrum — particularly those seeking key positions in high-profile programs — often faced the kind of scorn designed to chase them out, or, at the very least, break their spirits. The level of contempt or rejection faced by Black athletes varied depending on the sport, the region in America and Canada and how much they were willing to accept to play games they loved.
The overwhelming majority of the hockey world, long dominated by white men, has been good and kind to Grand-Pierre, he said. It’s important to him that people understand that.
But growing up, the racism he faced stung worse than being checked into the boards.
He was suspended in middle school for fighting after a white kid called him the N-word on the playground. In junior hockey, he heard an opposing white coach yell a racial slur aimed at him.
Others questioned whether he was really Black because in their view, he didn’t talk or act like their perception of a Black person. In his early 20s, he was pulled over by Montreal police several times for no other discernible reason than he was a young Black man driving a BMW.
Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, first Black player for Columbus Blue Jackets, discusses racism
Doral Chenoweth, The Columbus Dispatch
He doesn’t recall a single issue with race when he played in the NHL, which remains 97 percent white. His teammates, coaches and opponents treated him with respect, he said.
But in 2004, while playing professionally in Sweden, he was called for a penalty and sent to the box. A short time later, a fan threw a banana onto the ice. That fan was arrested.
“Ignorance is everywhere,” said Grand-Pierre, a married father of two who also works in the real estate business and lives in New Albany. “That one didn’t really affect me. I was older and I knew who I was by then. I realized by then I couldn’t control others’ stupidity.”
Seth Jones, the Blue Jackets All-Star defenseman, is thankful for Grand-Pierre and the other Black players who made it easier for him to just be a hockey player since Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958.
Jones, 26, started playing hockey in Colorado at age 5 and said he hasn’t experienced racist behavior at any level of the game. He considers himself fortunate and hopes it’s a sign that things are changing for the better in sports — and society.
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But he isn’t naïve.
“I don’t think hate is something you are born with. I think it’s something some people are taught,” Jones said. “I think things get a little better with each generation as we learn more about one another and are more accepting no matter what color we are or where we come from.”
Finding teachable moments after facing racism
The Black women on the Ohio State Track and Field team sat in the back of the bus, and their white teammates sat in the front.
This was by choice. They segregated themselves.
Stephanie Hightower, one of the nation’s best runners in 1977, had her favorite perch all the way in the back. The whole team knew this was Hightower’s spot, but on the way home from an away track meet, one of her white teammates intentionally sat in the seat to challenge the team’s star.
Hightower glared but didn’t say a word. When her teammate finally rose from the seat, she passed Hightower and started to call her the N-word, but didn’t even finish the slur when one of Hightower’s Black teammates punched her.
Hightower had heard that word plenty before. She grew up in Kentucky and would throw punches, even with boys who used it. She traveled around the world with her military family to countries where many didn’t like Black people.
When she arrived at OSU, she was assigned three white roommates. One of them moved out immediately because her parents didn’t want their daughter living in the dorm with a Black girl.
“It wasn’t that I hated white people, but after experiencing all of that, you are skeptical and cautious,” said Hightower, now 62 and president and CEO of the Columbus Urban League. “I grew up not trusting white folks. My parents didn’t trust white folks, and my grandparents witnessed lynchings when they were growing up.”
Hightower would go on to be a four-time U.S. champion at 100-meter hurdles and a five-time U.S. indoor champion at 60-meter hurdles. She won the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 100-meter hurdles but was prevented from competing in the Moscow Olympics due to America’s boycott of the games that year. She later served as president of USA Track & Field for seven years.
Having experienced racism both in and out of the sports world, she made it her mission to help white people understand Black people.
When Hightower’s son attended a new school in Columbus, he was playing on a basketball team that was nearly all white. She emailed the basketball parents and invited their sons for a sleepover at her home. No one responded.
Then she sent a second email inviting the parents over for a happy hour with a blunt message explaining that they lived in a safe, family-oriented neighborhood.
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All but one family came over to Hightower’s home.
“I couldn’t get them out of my house. We had to get more wine,” Hightower joked. “I wanted this to be a teachable moment for these people. We had a nice and clean home, and we, too, serve nice wine and cheese, and I wanted to show them we aren’t what you think we are.”
‘The lowest form of indignity you can give another human being’
“We don’t want a (N-word) playing quarterback for Ohio State.”
“You people are too damn stupid to even remember the plays.”
“Boys like you can’t be the leader of a team.”
The letters or phone calls with hate-filled messages came by the dozens every week to Cornelius Green after he arrived on Ohio State’s campus as a freshman in 1972. Woody Hayes had recruited the Black high school quarterback from the Washington, D.C., area, and a racist bunch of OSU’s white fan base didn’t like it.
Green would read most of the letters, tear them up and pray the color of his skin wouldn’t prevent him from playing the position he wanted most. He eventually went to Hayes and told him of the constant abuse.
Hayes told Green and his roommate, Archie Griffin, to ignore them, using his own profanity.
Hayes was protective and supportive of his young QB, but it didn’t stop the letters from coming.
Cornelius Green, first Black quarterback at Ohio State, discusses racism
Doral Chenoweth, The Columbus Dispatch
“It was the lowest form of indignity you can give another human being,” said Green, now 66. “They didn’t see me as someone who could help the Buckeyes win when I got there. I was just a Black kid not worthy of playing quarterback. And there was some real nasty stuff.”
The calls would come into Green’s dorm room, and at times, Griffin would be the one who would answer the phone and be mistaken for his quarterback roommate.
“I would pick up that phone and hear some really stupid, mean things come out of it,” said Griffin, a two-time Heisman trophy winner. As a running back, he didn’t experience racism like Green, he said.
“We have had many great Black quarterbacks go on to play for Ohio State since then. And I hope they and everyone else understands how well Corny handled himself both as a person and a player to help prove all those stereotypes wrong.”
Green, who is married with two children and coaches middle-school sports in the D.C. area, thought the racism might get worse for him at OSU during his sophomore year. He almost didn’t choose to play for Ohio State because his Black friends warned him that an old-school coach like Hayes would favor white players.
But it was Hayes who picked Green to be his starting quarterback in 1973 over an established white quarterback and team captain, Greg Hare. In Green’s first game as the starting quarterback, Ohio State beat Minnesota 56 to 7, and by year’s end, Green was MVP of the Rose Bowl.
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“After that Minnesota game, I never got another letter or call, or heard any of that racial bullshit,” Green said.
Rising above hate, while still taking a stand
When he was a child growing up in Cleveland, Gene Smith was warned that if he wandered into certain white neighborhoods, he might not return.
He drank from drinking fountains that were designated for “colored people.”
He listened to his mom’s stories of what it was like to grow up in the South.
He heard the N-word plenty, especially after he transferred to a private high school filled almost entirely with white students.
But it had never been directed at him until a high school basketball game. Smith’s white opponent called him the N-word, and he didn’t rise above it, as his dad always had advised him. Smith punched the other player in the face and was kicked out of the game.
“Gene, that is going to happen to you,” his coach said as he kneeled before him. “But those people are ignorant, and you can’t put yourself in situations where you lose opportunities.”
It was a lesson learned, Smith said.
“I snapped that night,” he said. “But it reinforced to me that I needed to rise above it like my parents taught me.”
Smith, 64, is now one of the most powerful figures in collegiate sports as senior vice president and director of athletics at Ohio State.
Earlier in his career, he was athletic director at Eastern Michigan University — one of only two Black collegiate athletic directors in the nation. When he decided he wanted to move to a bigger school, he remembers going through at least nine interviews for athletic director positions where he was, he believes, the token Black candidate.
During the next several years, Smith grew accustomed to being the only Black man in a board room full of white athletic officials.
“They didn’t say anything directly, but they didn’t want me in there,” Smith said. “You could feel it.”
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There also have been more racially motivated traffic stops for Smith than he can count. But the one that stands out most happened in Arizona — where he was athletic director at Arizona State University — when he and his wife were pulled over. The officer openly admitted that he didn’t see many Black men driving around in such a nice car in a white neighborhood in the early 2000s.
Smith never asked for the officer’s information in any of the stops, but he wishes he had.
“I look back on it, and I made a mistake,” said Smith, who says he hasn’t experienced similar bouts with racism since living in Columbus. “I should have gotten all the police officers’ names and badge numbers and turned them in. I was trying to rise above it. But as we are seeing today, there is a time to take a stand.”
This is part of a nine-story series that explores the ways in which prejudice and systemic racism impact Black Americans.
The creation of The Dispatch Black Out series started with a simple conversation between reporters Erica Thompson and Mike Wagner, who are part of the newspaper’s Heart of Columbus team. They wanted to show that the agony, frustration and pain felt by Black people in America wasn’t just connected to recent killings of Black people by police.
Along with photographer/videographer Doral Chenoweth, the journalists spent months interviewing dozens of Black people throughout central Ohio, and a few beyond, about their personal experiences with racism, prejudice and discrimination.
Their stories are raw and personal. The intent of the stories, photos and videos is to help others understand why Black people often live in fear for their safety and their livelihoods, and why they worry about being looked down upon as being inferior to white people. And hopefully that understanding leads to more equality.
If you have a story to tell about your own experiences with racism, please fill out the form below.
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