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‘It’s a cover-up’: Inside the fallout of racist event at HS soccer game

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(Courtesy of @ridehardsportsphotography)

On March 11, the Buchanan girls’ soccer team basked in the Central California sun.

The Bears had gathered in the circle of their home turf for a pizza lunch, in an attempt by coach Jasara Gillette to brighten the mood after one of the darkest weekends in program history.

Seated among her teammates, wearing a white hoodie and black leggings, was Ciara Wilson, Buchanan’s star senior forward and the TRAC conference Player of the Year. Wilson had not attended school all week. This was the first time she’d seen her teammates in six days, when she had become the center of attention at the Division I Northern California championship game for reasons out of her control.

On March 5, Buchanan (Clovis), the first school in its section to earn a spot in the title game since 2009, played host Oak Ridge (El Dorado Hills) to a 2-2 draw through two overtimes, sending the game to penalty kicks. With the shootout knotted at 1, Wilson, a Fresno State commit, stepped to the line.

The referee blew his whistle, and Wilson approached the ball. And then:


The intonation was undeniable. It was, per multiple videos of the incident reviewed by Just Women’s Sports, a mock monkey sound coming from the Oak Ridge stands directed at Wilson, who is Black. Wilson converted the kick and then immediately pointed to the Oak Ridge student section.

The referee ambled to the Oak Ridge sideline and met with coach Rino Chimienti. After a couple of minutes of discussion, Gillette ran across the field to plead her case.

“This game cannot continue,” Gillette said to the official, and later recalled to JWS. “You have racist comments coming from the stands.”

Instead, after Chimienti was given a yellow card — which prompted a bemused smile from the coach — the game did continue, and Oak Ridge won the shootout, 4-2. Oak Ridge players and coaches celebrated on the field and took pictures to post to social media.

More than three weeks later, Buchanan players, parents and coaches are still searching for answers: Why was the game not stopped? Why was the offending student not reprimanded on the spot? And why did the adults in charge not seem to care?

Their concerns were hardly assuaged last week when the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) announced its sanctions against Oak Ridge:

  1. Oak Ridge High School is on probation for the remainder of the 2021-2022 school year and through the 2023-24 school year.
  2. During the term of the probationary period, any home site post-season girls varsity soccer match, including Section, Regional, or State levels between Oak Ridge High School and Buchanan High School will be hosted by Buchanan High School.
  3. Completion of an annual sportsmanship workshop/training during the probationary period (to include a component of racial/cultural sensitivity training such as the NFHS Implicit Bias Course) for all Oak Ridge High School administrators, athletic director(s), coaches, and students.
  4. Prior to the start of the spring 2022 CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Championships, Oak Ridge High School administrators and athletic director(s) will complete game management training.
  5. The administration of Oak Ridge High School is strongly encouraged to engage with the administration at Buchanan High School to begin the process of developing a positive relationship between the two school communities.
  6. By August 1, 2022, or sooner, Oak Ridge High School shall submit an action plan to the State CIF outlining not only how it will comply with sanctions 3 through 5 above, but also what other strategies, if any, that it chooses to implement to avoid the repetition of the type of conduct that led to the implementation of these sanctions.

“I’m really upset and disappointed by the sanctions,” Wilson told JWS over text. “They haven’t held anyone responsible for what happened. As the victim I feel like they are acting as if Oak Ridge is the victim. They completely ignored the fact that it happened to me and did the bare minimum. I’m still waiting for real action to happen.”

“I’ve said from the beginning, there was a failure to understand the severity of what happened and how it affected the child,” Gillette said. “It’s a cover-up.”

The CIF declined to comment beyond the contents of its statement. Chimienti and Oak Ridge principal Aaron Palm did not respond to multiple requests for comment. When asked to expand upon the meaning of the “probationary period,” the CIF wrote back:

“If during the probationary period, conduct of a racial or discriminatory act occurs and is verified…the sanctions may be increased and may include additional penalties.”

In the meantime, Gillette, Wilson and the Buchanan girls’ soccer community continue to search for answers and reparations.

‘Why are people so dumb?’

This is not the first time Oak Ridge has been in the news for racist comments at a sporting event.

In 2016, the parent of a student at nearby McClatchy (Sacramento) told the Sacramento Bee that Asian players at a girls’ basketball game had been subjected to racist chants from the Oak Ridge student section, including “soy sauce” and “go back to Fiji,” and references to “small eyes.”

El Dorado Hills is a different place than Clovis. Wilson’s father, Brian, couldn’t help but notice the massive homes in the area on the drive to the game, and the racial demographics point to the differences: El Dorado Hills is 77.6 percent white and 1.7 percent Black, according to data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau. Clovis is 67.1 percent white, 32.7 percent Hispanic or Latino, 10.9 percent Asian and 2.7 percent Black, per the U.S. Census Bureau.

On March 5, Buchanan players smiled for a photo before hopping on a bus for the three-hour drive north, where they hoped to add to what had already been one of the most successful seasons in program history. The Bears had won conference and section championships, with Wilson leading the way.

The commute home had a different tenor. The players sat quietly on the bus with empty expressions on their faces. After the game, the Oak Hill players had briefly apologized to the Bears before continuing their celebration.

Chimienti waxed poetic about his players to local media, taking on the familiar tone of a coach gushing about his championship-winning team. The incident in the stands did not appear to have dampened his mood.

“Four of these girls, I’ve been with since their freshman year,” Chimienti told the Mountain Democrat. “We came in together, nd I think that was special, one being my daughter Olivia, (and) Emily (Lieber), Iman (Mustafa) and Grace (Goins). There’s no better way to go out.”

Buchanan players glumly accepted their red-ribboned second-place medals and headed home. They stopped at a Chick-fil-A for dinner, at which point Gillette briefly spoke to Wilson.

“She was like, ‘I wish that didn’t happen. I wish that wasn’t the last moment of my career,’” Gillette said.

Wilson was dropped off at a friend’s house, where her father picked her up after midnight. She was mostly quiet on the drive home, Brian said. She did have one question for her father.

“Why,” she asked, “are people so dumb?”

‘The adults are at fault’

After video of the incident — which also appeared to include Wilson’s Hispanic teammate, Daisy Torres, being serenaded by dog-barking sounds before her penalty kick — hit social media and prompted an uproar, Oak Ridge adopted a stiffer public stance.

Chimienti later told the Sacramento Bee he was “disgusted” by the events, as did Palm, the Oak Ridge principal. Following an Oak Ridge investigation, the offending student was identified and disciplined later in the week. But it was too little, too late, Brian said.

There is significant modern precedent for hecklers being thrown out of professional and college games in arenas of thousands of people. A fan at a Jan. 18 men’s basketball game between Wisconsin and Northwestern was ejected after he was seen making the so-called “Asian eye gesture” toward other fans. On Jan. 27, a fan was ejected from the Los Angeles Lakers-Philadelphia 76ers game after repeatedly calling Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony “boy.”

But there was no such intervention at the high school soccer game attended by a fraction of the people, despite the presence of Oak Ridge parents, coaches and administrators.

“Nobody cared to address the crowd at any point in time,” Brian said. “There’s no way you can’t find someone in the crowd. They never attempted to find out because they didn’t care.

“I’m not going to say the kid is at fault. The adults are at fault.”

Gillette has collected her players’ medals and plans to send them back to the CIF, along with their wooden second-place plaque. The team instead will make custom sweatshirts commemorating the season, emblazoned with their various accomplishments and a quote from the entrepreneur and author Timi Nadela:

“Don’t be afraid to shine, the world needs your light.”

It’s a sentiment that applies to the whole team, Gillette said, but Wilson especially. She’s returned to the field for her travel team, the Clovis Crossfire, and is looking forward to college. She’s starting to heal, but something is missing.

The Monday after the incident, Palm called Brian and promised to send a handwritten letter of apology to his daughter. As of this publication, according to Brian, the letter had not been received.

Josh Needelman is the High School Sports Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JoshNeedelman.