A sports tale for our times

DeMatha Catholic High School is the dominant basketball power in the Washington, D.C. area. It is one of the top basketball programs in the country.

Mike Jones, a Black, has coached DeMatha’s basketball team for the past 19 years. In May, he abruptly announced he was leaving to become an assistant coach at Virginia Tech.

Two days later, DeMatha named Pete Strickland as its interim basketball coach. He will be in charge next season.

Strickland is White. He is also the obvious choice to fill in.

Strickland played at DeMatha and was an assistant coach at the school under the legendary Morgan Wooten. He then played point guard for Pitt.

Strickland’s college coaching career includes more than half a decade as head coach at Coastal Carolina. He also coached Ireland’s national basketball team from 2016 to 2018. Most recently, he served as athletic director at St. John’s Catholic Prep in Maryland.

Strickland’s DeMatha roots are so deep that he recruited Mike Jones, the departing coach, to play at the school. Then, as an assistant coach at Old Dominion University, he recruited and coached Jones again.

Strickland’s choice also made sense because he is qualified to teach high school English. DeMatha requires its coaches to teach. There was an opening in the school’s English department. Strickland will fill it. (His wife also teaches at DeMatha.)

It may also be worth noting that, in a prior stint as an English teacher at DeMatha, Strickland assigned a star basketball player who later played in the NBA to read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” as a makeup lesson for missing an assignment. The former player says this was the first time he had read a book by an African American author and it had a profound effect on him.

Yet, the selection of Strickland as interim coach triggered a racial firestorm. The Washington Post reports that some former DeMatha basketball players and some parents of current ones are enraged that DeMatha bypassed several current Black assistant coaches and instead “hired a 64 year-old White man who hasn’t coached [in] three years.”

One parent complained:

It’s nobody on this earth that can tell me that if there were five White [assistant] coaches there that they would go find a 70-year-old Black coach to coach them without even talking to the white boys that were there. That’s not happening in America.

Notice how, in addition to getting Strickland’s age wrong, this parent strips out everything except race from consideration. Strickland’s obvious qualifications and close ties to DeMatha are irrelevant to the discussion (if one can call it that).

The selection of Strickland comes on the heels of DeMatha’s decision to bring back Bill McGregor, another White in his 60s, to coach the football team. He succeeds Elijah Brooks, a Black, who left to become an assistant coach at the University of Maryland.

McGregor is perhaps the most successful high school football coach in the history of the D.C. area. Only an out-and-out racist could have a problem with his hire.

Some of the people who complained to the Post said they feared that DeMatha is doing a “reset” to appease White donors and change the image of a school located in a largely Black area. One former player called this a move to “Make DeMatha Great Again.”

But this claim can’t be reconciled with DeMatha’s recent selection of a Black to be its dean of students.

And the following statement by one of the leaders of the anti-Strickland movement, the same one who came up with the “Make DeMatha Great Again” trope, seems paranoid:

It’s like a spit in the face to every Black athlete that put that program on the map. It was clear from the start that DeMatha had an agenda.

Two Black coaches at the two most visible programs? They didn’t like that, I don’t think. And I don’t think that they would ever come out and say that, but they didn’t like that.

But the school liked two Blacks in its prime coaching jobs enough to hire and retain both. The two Black coaches left for college jobs at major schools. Otherwise, DeMatha would still have Blacks in charge of the football and basketball programs and, from all that appears, would like it just fine.

Some of those complaining about Strickland’s selection couch their grievance in terms of “transparency.” DeMatha made its decision in just a few days without consulting parents and alums and without interviewing alternative candidates.

This overlooks the fact that DeMatha was only picking an interim coach. Father James Day, DeMatha’s president, says the school will establish a search committee this season before it picks a permanent head coach.

He also points out that the school was caught off guard by Jones’ departure and needed to replace him quickly to provide stability. DeMatha was worried, and rightly so, that other coaches would take advantage of any uncertainty by trying to poach its star players.

The complaints about Strickland’s selection, however they are cast, should be viewed mainly as an attempt to set aside a plum job for Blacks. They are a shot across the bow as DeMatha gets ready to select a non-interim head coach.

That’s why I view this story as a tale for our times. It’s all about “equity,” defined as stripping everything except race from decisions about who gets what in America today.