The Mississippi High School Activities Association is looking into allegations of racist behavior by the St. Patrick side during the Class 3A softball playoffs.
Philadelphia ended St. Patrick's season, winning game three of the 3A South State finals 3-0 Saturday in the second game of a doubleheader on the Catholic school's Biloxi campus. It marked the second consecutive season Philadelphia has knocked St. Patrick out of the playoffs, helping to create an intense rivalry between the two schools.
That back-and-forth between the two teams went a step too far Saturday, Philadelphia supporters and administrators said.
St. Patrick is facing accusations of making racial taunts against Philadelphia on Saturday and those allegations have made their way to the MHSAA, which is gathering information on the incident.
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"It's been brought to our attention and we're going through our process," MHSAA executive director Don Hinton said Tuesday. "We've contacted both teams and asked for written statements.
We want to give them time to do investigations at their schools. We've asked for all the information, and we'll probably have questions to ask to them.
"We'll move forward with a response if violations occurred."
Hinton made a point to caution against jumping to conclusions on the alleged incident based on accusations making the rounds on social media.
St. Patrick statement
St. Patrick principal Matt Buckley said in a statement to the Sun Herald the school has concluded its probe into the allegations.
"Through our investigation, we have found no evidence that racial comments were made during the games," he said. "We have an administrator on site at all of our athletic events and nothing was reported to him or the umpires at Saturday's game regarding racial comments being made."
Buckley acknowledged there have been some racially charged conversations between the two communities on social media in the aftermath of the incident.
"We have also been made aware that inappropriate comments have been published to social media accounts," he said in the statement. "We will investigate this further and act in accordance with our school's student discipline policy."
Philadelphia coach Austin McNair, who leads a team that is majority black, said Monday his players walked into an intense atmosphere.
At one point, McNair said, he heard a member of the St. Patrick student section loudly calling out one of his outfielders by her name. He spoke to one of the umpires about the harassment. The umpire turned to a game administrator, who then spoke with members of the student section.
A number of players in the St. Patrick dugout wore masks Saturday, including one who donned a monkey mask. A social media furor in the Philadelphia community has grown over the past couple of days with a photo of the masked player making the rounds on Facebook.
McNair, who is also the athletic director at Philadelphia, said officials were made aware of the behavior of the student section and the masks were also pointed out. He said the masks were removed from the dugout for the second game.
"The officials did a great job of handling things," McNair said.
LSU uses masks
Buckley said the St. Patrick players were emulating the LSU softball team, which dresses up in masks in the dugout during games.
"Once it was brought to the attention of the coach that some individuals were offended by the monkey mask, the mask was removed," he said. "St. Patrick Catholic High School does not condone or endorse discrimination against anyone. Fostering a Christian social conscience is an integral part of our mission, and our school promotes the teachings of Christ in accordance with the Catholic Church in treating all people with the utmost dignity and respect."
The rivalry between the two teams began last year in another hard-fought series that lasted three games.
On its road trip to St. Patrick last season, Philadelphia placed a sign in the window of its bus that said "Beat the Catholics."
"There was nothing derogatory about that," McNair said. "They are a Catholic school."
There was a similar sign in the Philadelphia dugout in game one of this year's series. McNair said St. Patrick coach Tommy Castanedo asked that the team not bring the sign with them to St. Patrick on Saturday and they agreed to leave it behind.
Philadelphia is looking to get past the controversy as it prepares to play Mooreville on Thursday in the Class 3A state finals.
"I'm very proud of my girls and my staff with the way we handled ourselves in that environment," McNair said.
Philadelphia superintendent Lisa Hull released a statement Tuesday praising the conduct of her high school softball team:
"We have turned the matter over to the (MHSAA), which is the governing body for its member schools," Hull said in the statement. "We have been in communication with the administrator at St. Patrick Catholic High School and know they are working to address any and all issues that have been brought to light through this incident. We will continue to support MHSAA as it works through the investigation process. I am extremely proud of our players and coaches for the high road they took on Saturday. Our team handled this difficult situation with grace and dignity. Their ability to continue to conduct themselves as young ladies and coaches in such adversity is a tribute to them individually, to their families, to our school, and to our community, and it is what we expect of all our students and staff in the Philadelphia Public School District."