Racial remark at high school basketball game felt like ‘gut punch,’ 16-year-old says

A 16-year-old high school basketball player from Selkirk, Man., is speaking out after he says an opposing player made a racial remark during a game last Thursday night in Oakbank, Man.

Joel Masse, who is Cree and a Grade 10 student at Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School, says his performance in the game suffered after hearing the comment.

“I played terribly,” he said in an interview. “It was just like a gut punch.”

Joel said it happened during a junior varsity boys basketball game on Feb. 9 between his Lord Selkirk Royals and the Springfield Sabres at Springfield Collegiate Institute.

He said his team was running an inbound play called a flat, with Joel set up to receive a pass for a quick score, when a player from the opposing team made the remark.

“My coach said, ‘Let’s do a flat Joel.’ And then the student was like ‘black Joel’ and pointed at me in a hurtful way,” Joel said. “Is there something wrong with being Black? I didn’t get that.”

Joel said he immediately told a referee, who then assessed the player with a technical foul.

He said the referee stopped the game to talk to both benches, when he said an opposing coach questioned the foul.

“‘Oh, is this a foul? It’s just words,’ one of the coaches said,” according to Joel.

“We continued playing after that. I continued playing, which kind of hurt. I don’t want to play a sport when I’m hurt.”

Before the game even started, Joel said he saw racist graffiti on the wall of the boys’ change room at the school.

“After the game, I was just sad,” he said.

Mom says comment ‘triggered me’

His mother, Grace Masse, wasn’t at the game but heard about the incident afterwards from Joel as well as from her oldest daughter and niece, who were at the game watching.

A woman in a blue sweater and shirt is pictured sitting down, holding her hands together at a wooden kitchen table. She has an orange coffee mug with First Nations artwork on the mug and in the background. She's sitting next to a shelf which contains traditional Indigenous medicines.
Grace Masse, Joel’s mom, is calling on both school divisions involved in the incident to better educate students on Indigenous history and culture. (Josh Crabb/CBC)

She said the graffiti in the change room seems to have set the stage for Joel before he even started to play.

“Him being called ‘black Joel,’ when I heard about it, kind of triggered me,” Grace said.

“As an Indigenous woman, a lot of the things told to me was … this kind of stuff to make you feel like as if the colour of your skin … there’s something wrong with being darker.”

On Sunday, Grace said she already brought the issue to the attention of the Lord Selkirk School Division and planned to contact Springfield Collegiate Institute (SCI) in Oakbank. She wrote about the incident in a social media post seen by the Sunrise School Division, which oversees Springfield Collegiate.

Joel Masse said after the game, his cousin confronted an opposing coach, who he said denied any racial remark was made.

No harm intended, says Sunrise superintendent

Sunrise School Division superintendent Cathy Tymko said in email to CBC News that the inbound play call was heard by other players and spectators as “black” as opposed to “flat.”

“An SCI player expressed astonishment that the play would be called ‘Black student name,'” Tymko wrote. “Coaches, conveners and refs discussed and debriefed the details and confirmed that the play name had not been questioned in a negative or derogatory way or in any way that intended harm.”

Tymko wrote, “Regardless of intent, if it was perceived as harmful, the school and division would absolutely work to correct any miscommunication, misinterpretation, and/or misgivings felt.”

The grey cement and brick exterior of a high school gymnasium is pictured with a melting parking lot in the foreground.
The game between the Selkirk Royals and Springfield Sabres was played at Springfield Collegiate Institute in Oakbank, Man., on Feb. 9. (Josh Crabb/CBC)

When asked why a technical foul was issued, Tymko said the division is still waiting for a formal report from referees through the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association (MHSAA), the governing body of high school sports in the province.

“Our own preliminary investigations indicate that the coach and players at SCI behaved with the utmost respect both during the game as well as after the game,” Tymko wrote.

She said when staff heard about the graffiti in the change room, it was removed.

Lord Selkirk School Division investigating 

Jerret Long, superintendent of the Lord Selkirk School Division — where Joel goes to school — said the division takes the matter “very seriously” and is currently conducting an internal investigation to gather information.

“With the whole priority really being making sure Joel, who’s our student, feels a high degree of safety, feels a high degree of support,” Long said.

A large brown school is pictured on a winter day.
Joel Masse attends Lord Selkirk Regional Comprehensive Secondary School. The superintendent says the school division is conducting its own investigation with a priority of supporting Joel. (Josh Crabb/CBC)

The MHSAA says the school divisions are leading the investigation because the incident occurred during a league game and not during a provincially sanctioned tournament.

“We take incidents such as this incredibly seriously and it’s just really disappointing to hear every time one arises,” said Chad Falk, the association’s executive director, adding that it recently adopted an anti-racism policy.

Falk said schools are encouraged to report incidents to the MHSAA within 48 hours.

He said no formal report was received regarding the incident in Oakbank, but he learned about it on Monday after CBC News informed him that both school divisions are looking into the matter.

“The MHSAA is always there to consult and help with the investigation and play any role that they need us in,” Falk said, adding that its policy dictates that schools develop a reconciliation plan when an incident occurs to prevent it from happening again.

More support needed for player: Equity Matters rep

Joel’s experience hits close to home for Jordan Bighorn, co-director of operations for the Community Education Development Association in Winnipeg. He says his eldest son plays basketball and may one day be on a junior varsity team like Joel.

“As a racialized parent, unfortunately in this day and age, I expect that,” Bighorn said. “It’s almost like I have to prepare my son at any point in time this may come from a player, a coach, a fan.”

A man in a black jacket holds his hands together while standing on a curved staircase in a white foyer with gold decorative birds pictured on the wall in the background.
Jordan Bighorn, a parent representative with the group Equity Matters, says it’s important that people learn from incidents like the one Joel experienced. (Prabhjot Singh Lotey/CBC)

The association supports Equity Matters, which raises awareness around equity, diversity and inclusion in school divisions. Bighorn serves on Equity Matters as a parent representative.

Bighorn said he’s concerned that issuing a foul for a racial comment sends the message that it’s effectively part of the game. A better response, he suggested, would be to stop the entire game and call out the comment.

“You engage with the players, engage with the player that was hurt, and maybe give them the first opportunity to decide what happens next,” Bighorn said. “So that, for example, Joel might know that the entire gym, the fans know that this has happened to him, and it shifts to a position of support for him.”

Tymko said staff and coaches from Springfield Collegiate have been in contact with Selkirk staff and coaches. She said both she and Long have also been communicating with each other and with Grace Masse.

Grace says she wants an apology from the opposing team’s coach, but she isn’t seeking any discipline for the opposing player. She wants this to be a teachable moment.

“I’m afraid a lot of students and families go through this and they don’t have a voice,” Grace said.

“I want to advocate for my people and for those that don’t speak out about it. Perhaps with that voice comes change within the education system.”

That’s what Joel wants, too.

“I don’t want this to be a problem for anyone,” he said.