Sunday, February 23, 2014

Disturbing Lynching Imagery or Youthful Indiscretion? Eight Phillipsburg HS Wrestlers Apologize For Controversial Photo

Does this look like a staged suicide or a staged lynching?
While the recent news that three members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at the University of Mississippi have been identified as the culprits responsible for hanging a noose and an old Georgia state flag emblazoned with the Confederate "stars & bars" around the neck of the statue of civil rights icon James Meredith is a positive sign, is a growing tolerance for intolerance seeping into the minds of young people in America?

If you haven't heard about the controversy surrounding the eight members of the Phillipsburg (NJ) High School wrestling team's controversial photo that's gone viral, just take a look at this picture (above left) taken by the eighth member of the group. What does it look like to you?

According to an article by Jim Deegan of the Express Times posted on, this photo was taken not long after the Phillipsburg wrestling team defeated rival schools Paulsboro and Kittatinny to go undefeated for the first time in 44 years and earn a state sectional title.

The dummy being hung in effigy is wearing the red t-shirt of Paulsboro High School and the blue singlet of Kittantinny Regional High School; in a statement the eight Phillipsburg wrestlers claim they staged the photo in celebration as sort of an "in your face" to the two rival schools they defeated and that the photo is not meant to represent the lynching of a black person.

 What bothers me is the opening of the article by Jim Deegan paraphrases the wrestler's attorney Scott Wilhelm as saying the photo was "recreating an executioner's scene, not a white supremacist one." If it was an executioner's scene, why did their attorney present the fake suicide note (see above) written in orange marker?

Look at the photo closely: do you see that "suicide note" anywhere in the picture?     

As an article in the New York Times Lede section points out, Paulsboro HS is located in Gloucester County, one of New Jersey's most racially diverse communities.

Now I'm not Columbo but it seems to me as if the Phillipsburg wrestlers staged their lynching photo, released it on social media, then got caught by surprise when it blew up on the Web for being racist.

In response their families quickly hired a lawyer, who shrewdly tried to present the photo as a "suicide scene", got one of the kids to write the fake suicide note, then held a press conference where all the eight of the wrestlers (looking appropriately humbled and apologetic) appeared lined up at a table and released a joint statement apologizing for any offense the image may have caused and offered up their shaky suicide story.     

I do believe they're genuinely sorry and while I do have the capacity to forgive teenagers for making stupid mistakes, they had to know the racist context of a dark-skinned dummy being hung; and look at the two kids in the photo standing to the right of the dummy with their hoodies pulled up made to look like KKK hoods - to me that exposes the suicide angle as bogus. Plus the note looks like it was written in haste or in a panic.

The kids are certainly being held responsible, they served three-day suspensions and must take a sensitivity training class. They did appear together at the press conference to face the media and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association announced their actions violated the Sportsmanship Rule.

Their names have been publicly released and they were also denied the chance to take part in the NJ state wrestling tournament, so for the seniors, it's the last time they'll ever wrestle in high school.

So I'd say they've paid quite a price for their "youthful indiscretion" and perhaps it will teach them and other students about the consequences of using racially offensive imagery.
I can't help but wonder if they were influenced by the current media environment in which the major mainstream press outlets seem willing to report on NRA board member and right wing extremist Tea Bagger Ted Nugent's calling President Obama a "subhuman mongrel" but don't seem to go deeper and call him out for being an ignorant racist.

After all, if it's okay for an outspoken public celebrity like Ted Nugent to vilify the President simply because of the color of his skin, why would a group of high school kids think it's wrong to mock a wrestling opponent because of their race then put it out on social media?

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