Pinellas coach's racial slur may not be firing offense

Black players, parents and civic leaders step up to say dismissal is too severe for the Lakewood ex-coach and teacher.

Published January 28, 2005

At what point does mentioning race become a racial slur? Does it make a difference if the person talking is not a racist? Is it ever okay, even in the heat of a game, for a coach to make such a comment to a student athlete?

These and other questions have been swirling for weeks around Brian Bruch, who recently uttered two words that cost him his job as Lakewood High School's football coach. He nearly lost his 23-year teaching career as well.

On Nov. 11, in the last game of a humiliating season, Bruch, who is white, told a black football player to get his "black a--" back into a huddle.

After initially recommending that Bruch be fired, Pinellas schools superintendent Clayton Wilcox told the School Board in an e-mail Thursday he would soften the discipline to a 10-day, unpaid suspension and a transfer to Dunedin High, where Bruch will continue to teach math. He also would be required to attend two workshops on racial diversity.

The board will consider the case Feb. 8.

Who changed Wilcox's mind? Members of St. Petersburg's black community, including current and former Lakewood players, parents and civic leaders.

Many of them said it is clear Bruch is no racist. In 13 years at Lakewood, he had taken too many black students under his wing, bought them lunches and clothing, arranged for visits to dentists and doctors and guided them toward college careers.

Yes, many said, the remark was inappropriate, but it shouldn't cost Bruch his teaching job.

"He showed that he cared and was really concerned with building the character of the boys," said the Rev. Louis M. Murphy, a prominent black pastor in St. Petersburg whose son, a senior, played three years for Bruch.

Murphy said he disagreed with Bruch's coaching tactics. "But he's an honorable man . . . I didn't see him as a racist."

Bruch ran up against a new superintendent who is especially sensitive to race. When Wilcox interviewed last year with the School Board, he said his decisions would be guided by his perspective as a Mexican-American growing up in mostly white Iowa.

Wilcox heard people refer to his mother with racial slurs. He saw them turn her away from public places because her skin was too brown.

He moved to Pinellas from a Louisiana school district that is 75 percent black.

"I don't think there's any place in our organization for that kind of conversation," Wilcox said Thursday of Bruch's remark. "People ought to take notice that we're going to draw a very hard line against comments, even in the heat of the moment, that are derogatory to people . . . I won't suffer it and I don't think kids should have to either."

In a recent interview, Bruch described the scene that led to his remark. It was the first half of a game against Dunedin High.

"Dunedin started putting it to us pretty good and I called a time-out and went out on the field and started to address them about basically lying down and quitting."

One player remained outside the huddle and looked into the stands. Bruch said he twice told the player to join the huddle, but was ignored. Teammates started to yell at the player too, he said.

"On the third time that I called his name he didn't turn around again," Bruch recalled. "I stepped through the huddle, reached and grabbed him by the chest protector, pulled him into the huddle and told him to "Get your black a-- in here right now.' "

Bruch has said there is "no excuse" for making the remark and accepts responsibility for it. But he also argues that profanity is frequently used in male sports. He said he has used the term a-- many times in many contexts, including "white a--" for his white students.

He expressed relief Thursday that the firing had been reduced to a suspension, but said he had been through an unnecessarily trying time since making the remark.

"It's a bitter pill to swallow," he said. "I know I wasn't guilty of doing what I was originally accused of doing because I know I'm not a racist."

Now that he is leaving Lakewood, Bruch said, "the kids in south St. Petersburg have lost one of the greatest allies that they've ever had - black, white or purple."

Among those who intervened in the case was Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP. He phoned and e-mailed Wilcox.

"Clearly, it was a racial slur," Rouson said. "It was inappropriate and should not be tolerated from a person in authority, especially a white person saying it to a person of ethnicity."

Rouson said the remark should be viewed in historical context. "It was used (in the past) to scar, denigrate and cause pain psychologically and otherwise to a people," he said.

But he said he is convinced Bruch never meant it in a racist way and called the suspension "appropriate." Rouson said he spoke to former Gibbs High principal Barbara Shorter, who is black and had a hand in hiring Bruch years ago. He also said he was moved by an impassioned letter on Bruch's behalf from Justin Wood, a former Lakewood player and a law student at Vanderbilt University.

Wood, who is black, called Wilcox's initial decision to fire Bruch, "a hasty, unreasoned, and cowardly solution to a complex problem."

He wrote: "Growing up in the diverse community of St. Petersburg, I was not a stranger to young people referring to each other as "black' or "white' in jest regardless of the race of the speaker and recipient."

Bruch, he said, often speaks to players in "the vernacular" to build rapport, joke and get their attention.

Murphy, the black pastor, said no one would have cared if a black coach had made the remark.

"That's the crazy society that we live in," he said.