Jeremiah Chapman did not want any of this.
Not the limelight.
Not the interviews.
Not the stories, the tweets or the social media posts.
The laidback, lanky 10th grader, a four-sports athlete in Charles City, where he has gone to school since first grade, when his family moved to town from Chicago, likes to play video games, hang out with friends, and sleep in.
He dreams of playing in the NFL one day, and he works hard to make it happen.
But the racially tinged taunts Jeremiah, the only Black player on the Comets’ baseball team, heard hurled at him during the June 27 baseball game in Waverly, put him squarely in an uncomfortable spot of someone else’s doing.
It wasn’t his choice to have his name broadcast all over social media.
Or for his family to do about 40 media interviews, including with CNN and other national news organizations.
Or to have over two dozen professional athletes from all sports reach out to him, and express support and affirmation.
Of course Jeremiah appreciates all the good will of those who extended sympathetic and supportive messages.
A FaceTime talk with Deion Sanders, the Pro Football Hall of Famer whose character his mom admired so much that she picked Deion as Jeremiah’s middle name, is among the serendipitous outcomes of this otherwise unpalatable experience.
“It wasn’t a publicity stunt,” Jeremiah said preemptively during a telephone interview with Waverly Newspapers.
In this interview, during which Jeremiah and his mother, Keisha Cunnings, both answered questions, as it is the policy of the newspaper to interview minors only with parental permission, his mother echoed this comment emphatically, and later explained it was in reference to “negative feedback” on Twitter, where commenters were questioning the veracity of the reported incident based on the fact that Jeremiah smiled during on-air interviews.
“He is smiling, he is nervous,” his mom said.
Attention is just not Jeremiah’s thing.
But these days, he seems to be a magnet for it.
Here is what else has come with it — extensive scrutiny.
Jeremiah has had to answer the same questions over and over, and keep replaying the incident in his mind over and over.
It’s draining to be repeating the taunts, and revisiting the situation with school administrators, with friends who want to be in the know, and with journalists.
Media reports about the incident, which drew national attention, quote specific phrases that Jeremiah had heard.
But with time, and with the multiple tellings, the exact phrasing seems to have evolved.
No audio recording has surfaced of the incident so far. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, fans had to sit 6 feet apart from other non-familiar groups, which may have added to the complexity of the situation, as sound only travels so far.
A statement of support to the family, issued by the Charles City School District and posted on the district’s site, reports two quotes:
“Get back to the fields!”
“You’re only here because of George Floyd.”
The statement continues:
“Sadly, this has been a pattern of behavior that our students of color have had to endure in many different places and contexts and is part of their daily experience,” the statement reads.
In the Waverly Newspapers interview, Jeremiah said he heard yells coming from the fans sitting behind the outfield fence calling him Colin.
He understood it to mean it had to do with Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who protests police brutality by taking a knee during the National Anthem.
He heard, “Trump 2020.”
He didn’t know what to make of it.
“That comment didn’t spark anything because he doesn’t follow politics,” his mom later explained.
He also heard, “Go back to the fields.”
“In his mind, it meant, he is a slave, go back and work in the fields,” his mother said.
Keisha added this comment could not have been directed at anyone else other than her son, because at that point in the game, he was the only one standing there.
“They were trying to throw him off his game,” Keisha said, noting that the Comets were making some strides during the second game, after losing the first one to W-SR.
Originally, the taunts were directed to another Charles City player, she said, but eventually, they escalated as they turned to Jeremiah.
But it is when Jeremiah heard, “You should have been George Floyd,” a reference to the man whose death, while in custody of the Minneapolis police, sparked worldwide protests for racial justice, that’s when he realized the hecklers had gone beyond the bounds of what he had come to expect at a game with his school’s fiercest rival.
That triggered Jeremiah internally, his mother said, but he was able to keep his composure.
He said he told his coaches when he got to the dugout, and proceeded to play. W-SR ended up sweeping the doubleheader by scores of 3-0 and 6-5.
“I just let it slide and then I got angry,” Jeremiah said. “I didn’t want to make it bigger than what it needed to be. It’s whatever, I will just keep playing…”
But when the game was over, on his way back home, Jeremiah texted his mom, revealing his true feelings.
“Why are people so mean? “ he says he wondered. “And I told her I didn’t want to play baseball anymore.”
His mom, who knows that in contrast to her outgoing nature, her oldest son internalizes his emotions, had a mixed reaction.
“I was upset I was not there to protect him as a mom,” Keisha said, “but another part of me was, ‘OK, I can’t protect him from everything, he has experienced it now, he won’t be naïve or ignorant if this were to happen again. We can’t be naïve. He is going to encounter something like this when he goes to college. We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. My son is a Black man in America.’”
Keisha says she is proud of how Jeremiah handled himself. Had it happened to her, she admits, she would not have been as silent, she would have “fired back, or at least acknowledged it.”
“Jeremiah was very selfless in that moment,” she said. “He didn’t want to make a spectacle, he just wanted to play the game. Jeremiah showed great courage and resistance. He showed he was a selfless person because he didn’t want to make it about himself.”
Both mother and son say they have never before heard racial taunts at any other game with Waverly.
“I feel like this is a sportsmanship issue rather than a racism issue,” Keisha told Waverly Newspapers in the telephone interview. “It’s a rivalry between the two schools, and sometimes, the lines are crossed that shouldn’t be crossed and this is one of those times. If we tackle the sportsmanship issue, the racism issue won’t even be an issue.”
HOW THE REPORTED INCIDENT RESONATED IN WAVERLY
On Wednesday, the W-SR district released a short statement, confirming they had concluded an “extensive” investigation into the matter.
The public statement said that the district is not releasing further details because federal and state laws protect the privacy of students.
“Our District is taking appropriate measures in response to this incident,” the statement said.
The report contains 108 pages of transcribed interviews among other information, according to W-SR Director of Educational Services Bridgette Wagoner. She told the district’s school board of the interviews during its July 13 meeting.
Reached for comment after the release of the report, Keisha said she was told the investigation found evidence of the “Colin” comment and the “fields” comments, but not of the Trump 2020 or the George Floyd comments.
She said Jeremiah was with her when they spoke to the W-SR investigator over the phone on Wednesday, and Jeremiah left the room once he heard the findings of the report.
Keisha said she was so “shocked” by the findings that she had to repeat it back to make sure she understood.
She said she had urged her son to report the George Floyd comment once he shared it with her.
“He didn’t want to go public,” she said. “It was me who told him we needed to say something. I hoped that something would be done and something would be changed, so it doesn’t happen to someone else. I am in shock and I am very angry. I just want this nightmare to go away.”
Shortly after the incident was reported, Waverly Superintendent Ed Klamfoth sent an acknowledgement of the incident and an apology, along with reassurance that this was a teachable moment.
Later on, the district announced it was conducting a Title IX and Equity investigation, which was separate from the internal interviews done by the athletic department.
In an earlier interview, Wagoner noted that the district is “legally required to investigate reports of discrimination and harassment.”
Meanwhile, Head Coach Casey Klunder told Waverly Newspapers that he had a talk with the team.
“Comments that I have heard were said, have no place in high school baseball or at Waverly-Shell Rock or in society,” he said.
Klunder added that some of the comments were reported to him through other coaches the evening of the game and others came a couple of days later.
Klunder said that prior to every game, an announcement is read over the public address system about sportsmanship and fan conduct, reminding everyone of the expectations of respect.
In its July 6 meeting, the Waverly City Council took on the issue of the specific incident. Councilman Tim Kangas, a school teacher, and a sports official with the Iowa High School Athletic Association, expressed his frustration with the situation.
“I was disgusted, it reflects on the entire community,” he said, “It’s not just a school district thing, it’s a community thing.”
Another councilman, Brian Burgen, said the incident has tarnished the town’s reputation at the national level.
“Somehow, this fan was taught that racist behavior was acceptable,” he said. “Maybe in the past, these comments were laughed off or ignored, but this time, we need to send a clear message that the Waverly community has no place for racist ideas or actions.”
On Monday, at the urging of Mayor Adam Hoffman, the Waverly City Council had approved a resolution to create a Diversity and Human Equity Task Force, consisting of 16 community members with liaisons Ward 4 Councilwoman Heather Beaufore and City Administrator James Bronner.
HOW THE FAMILY FEELS
In the first interview with Waverly Newspapers, Jeremiah’s mom, Keisha, who works as the confidential secretary at the Charles City School District, and is also the dance team coach, says there should have been consequences.
“We need to do better,” she said.
“If I was in charge, I would say, ‘We are not going to play at all, until someone comes forward and accepts responsibility to acknowledge that we, as a district, we as a community, we as an organization, do not condone this. We do not stand for things like this here. Take ownership.”
She said the investigation “does seem like the issue is not being handled appropriately.”
“What has been done?” she said. “What has been done to ensure that it doesn’t happen again? How do we move forward? None of these questions have been answered.”
On Wednesday, in a second interview with Waverly Newspapers, reflecting on the findings of the W-SR report, she said she believes her son’s story, and doubted that anyone would admit to having uttered the George Floyd comment.
“Who would admit that?” Keisha said. “Let’s be realistic, nobody is going to admit it.
“It’s very disappointing. It’s sending the wrong message.”