All-white panel refused Black Kansas student’s transfer. Why do Black bodies face so many limits?

February 5, 2023 3:33 am
Basketball on the floor of a indoor court.

The recent 4-2 denial of Zion Young’s transfer request by an all-white KSHSAA board represents an exploitative American sporting system, writes Mark McCormick. (Getty Images)

If this story consisted only of the Kansas State High School Athletic Association’s denial of Zion Young’s transfer request from Campus High School following a documented and undisputed racist incident, it would still document a sizeable concern.

If this story told only about the anxiety and depression Zion experienced after that incident, that too would amount to a sizeable problem.

But what happened to Zion — and has happened to too many talented and Black athletes — feels bigger. That recent 4-2 denial vote before an all-white KSHSAA board represented an American sporting system that exploits Black bodies. These systems should elevate, celebrate, and liberate Black athletes.

Was Zion’s request denied because the requested transfer would have been his third in four years? Was it because his father, Steve Young, is an influential AAU coach resented because of his past recruitment of prep stars Buddy Hield and Perry Ellis? Was it systemic racism?

Whatever the answer, we can’t leave kids vulnerable to the racism Zion encountered, to potential petty jealousies or unfair restrictions on chasing dreams.

Steve Young said his son was a victim of a racist act, then a racially insensitive review system that minimized what his son experienced.

“My whole point is to expose these people,” Steve Young said.

Steve Young said his son was a victim of a racist act, then a racially insensitive review system that minimized what his son experienced.

– Mark McCormick

I asked KSHSAA executive director Bill Faflick for his organization’s side of the story, along with the number of transfer request denials and a racial breakdown of the requests and denials. The public has a right to know if data show that transfer rulings unfairly target Black athletes.

Faflick said KSHSAA does not discuss the specifics of a student transfer beyond family and educator stakeholders, but he said there were no data supporting claims the transfer process disproportionately disadvantages Black athletes.

“The appeal board listened to appellants (sic) perspective as well as the former school administrator and staff regarding the transfer, and ultimately the Appeal Board did not believe this warranted a hardship,” Faflick said in an emailed response.

Faflick said once the association receives paperwork, it cannot discern the race of the transferring student. I pointed out that not collecting racial data doesn’t mean a problem doesn’t exist. He added that the organization “strives to apply the rules equally regardless of student gender, race, activity, school or any other factor.”

He said KSHSAA approves most transfers. For foreign exchange students, 294 of 296. For hardship-transfer applications, 173 of 206. All of the 302 limited eligibility applications were approved.

Faflick confirmed that Zion faced an all-white panel but said that the organization had African Americans on its executive board and board of directors. (It appears, however, that only two of 65 top administrators are Black.) He said rules governing transfers are there to protect students from displacement in activities by students engaged in “school shopping.”

He said to transfer, a student must meet all other “rules and regulations, such as age, Scholarship, Bona Fide Student in Good Standing, etc.”

Finally, Faflick said KSHSAA does not control membership of the Appeal Board as it is elected by those in the respective category from those willing to serve.

But Black students, at least in urban districts, are overrepresented in basketball and football. Zion shouldn’t have had to face an all-white panel to escape the racism at his high school. A more representative board might have better understood Zion’s plight.

The Kansas State High School Athletic Association’ denied Zion Young’s transfer request from Campus High School. (Steve Young)

Those regulations feel archaic in today’s bold new world of sports entertainment.

Schools and advertisers court top-tier Black athletes. For greater athletic success, for career advancement, and for profits including new opportunities with name, image and likeness deals, these athletes begin weighing earlier than ever where to find the best deals and exposure as well as safe spaces to pursue their dreams. Individual athletes are now essentially small businesses.

And while student athletes now use the college transfer portal liberally, this newfound freedom has begun to irk some traditionalists.

It’s different for white athletes, who tend to have the means and connections to navigate these outdated systems. This opportunity imbalance disproportionately stymies Black upward mobility.

Steve Young rejected KSHSAA accusations that Zion was “school shopping.”

“We were happy at the school for two years until the racist incident,” Steve Young said in a call. “We didn’t go looking until this racial incident occurred. If this isn’t a hardship, then what is?”

The school denied the transfer request and so did KSHSAA, meaning Zion lost the opportunity to play basketball while finishing his high school career.

That “incident” involved a PowerPoint presentation depicting Zion as a gorilla with enormous lips.

“No one cared about my son’s well-being,” said Steve Young, who has since moved his son to a private, Christian Wichita school. “They’re just mad because they wanted my son to play for them.”

Zion slipped into depression, even breaking out in hives. His grades slumped. He’d become truant.

The family wanted Zion, whose parents are divorced, to move in with his mother, Tina, a principal in the Wichita School District. She lived in the Wichita Heights attendance zone, but the KSHSAA hearing didn’t go well, Steve Young said. They weren’t allowed to cross-examine anyone during the hearing.

“My son was discriminated against twice — once at the school and again in front of that board,” Steve Young said. “The system failed him.”

My son was discriminated against twice — once at the school and again in front of that board. The system failed him.

– Steve Young

Unfairness seems endemic.

Jalen Rose, an ESPN talk show host who founded and runs a Detroit-based charter school, said restrictions on young Black athletes aren’t new. For example, he said, basketball and football leagues restrict professional participation immediately after high school and limit contract lengths.

“In baseball, you can sign a 10-year deal,” Rose said. “In hockey, you can sign a nine-year deal. You can’t in basketball. In tennis, golf, and NASCAR, you can turn pro after high school. You can’t in basketball and football. … They are going to force you to feed these systems as long as possible.”

Sometimes, it’s just old-fashioned racism in the youth sports world.

Black athletes playing basketball or football in Wichita during the 1960s said white coaches told them that while they were good enough to play or to even start, only a few were allowed on any one team. This denied many of them college athletic scholarships.

The unfair treatment didn’t end in the 1960s.

Co-writing Barry Sanders’ 2003 bestselling book, I learned that few Big 8 conference football recruiters asked about him because they were told our school had no major college talent. There were whispers that Barry’s frenetic running style meant he lacked contact courage. This limited his options.

Sanders later won the Heisman and the National Football League’s Rookie of the Year. He was voted into the Hall of Fame. He obviously persisted, but no person or group should be able to narrow a kid’s horizon this way.

They shouldn’t be able to limit Zion’s life and future the way KSHAAA did.

The sad truth is, Black people don’t enjoy dominion over our bodies. We learned from events in Memphis we don’t have that dominion in traffic stops. We learned from Trayvon Martin that we don’t have that dominion walking home from a store. We learned from Ahmaud Arbury that we don’t have that dominion while jogging. We learned from Breanna Taylor that we don’t have that dominion while we sleep.

We certainly don’t have it in sports.

So what do we know?

We know Zion did not ask classmates to depict him as an ape. His father said the family received no apologies and when Zion wanted to transfer, a ruling body of white adults minimized what happened, then denied his transfer, ultimately demanding he remain in a toxic environment if he wanted to play basketball.

We must weed out gatekeepers wielding capricious power over Black athletes.

“They knew what happened to him, and they knew basketball was what he loved, and then they took it from him,” Steve Young said. “We don’t want this to happen to another kid.”

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Mark McCormick
Mark McCormick

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas.