Black tennis officials alleging racial bias
NEW YORK — A top-ranked tennis umpire held a silent protest
last week outside Arthur Ashe Stadium to protest his dismissal from
courtside and call attention to what he calls a climate of racial
hostility in the top echelons of the game.
Cecil Hollins, 49, in a protest reminiscent of sprinters Tommie
Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City,
wore a black glove and raised his fist in a Black Power salute while
standing silently beneath a bronze statute of the late tennis champion
As tennis fans arriving at the stadium and spotted the dreadlocked
umpire, chains wrapped around his torso, he passed out fliers and
answered questions about the racial state of tennis.
Inside the stadium, stars like the Williams sisters and James Blake
showcased contemporary African American court talents throughout
the two-week U.S. Open tournament. But for black line judges and
umpires, the courts remain largely inaccessible, according to a
$90 million civil suit filed by Hollins and other plaintiffs against
the U.S. Tennis Association and the International Tennis Federation.
In the complaint, veteran umpire Sande French alleges gender as
well as racial discrimination, charging that professional tennis
prohibits women from working as chair umpires for significant men’s
Both Hollins and French claim they have been subjected to racial
slurs, limited opportunities and a hostile work environment in which
complaints about slurs went unheeded and efforts to redress wrongs
In one instance, Hollins said he and a fellow African-American umpire
were hitting balls at the New York Tennis Center during U.S. Open
week when a groundskeeper, ignoring white umpires taking advantage
of the same privilege, said to them: “You two niggers get
off the court.”
“I showed him my gold badge and said we would deal with it
when we finished,” said Hollins in an interview last week.
“We brought our concerns to the director of umpires, who said
he would investigate, but nothing ever happened.”
Hollins’ repeated complaints about racially charged incidents
resulted in his termination from tennis officiating, claims the
According to Hollins, of 2000 USTA-certified chair umpires, only
six are African American — just .03 percent.
Norman Siegel, former director of the New York Civil Liberties Union
and a candidate for the post of public advocate, along with New
York City Councilor Margarita Lopez, have questioned the continued
use of the city-owned National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows
as the site of the U.S. Open, saying a public facility should bar
use to organizations that discriminate.
“The population of the city and state of New York contains
incredible diversity,” said Lopez. “It is unacceptable
for the city to enter into a contract with any person or organization
that practices discrimination.”
Just a few seasons ago, Hollins was sitting in the courtside umpire’s
chair at the U.S. Open, a gold-badge judge with Grand Slam credentials
— Wimbledon, the French Open and the Australian Open as well
as the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Hollins, an attorney who referees off the court as a New York City
traffic judge, said he pursued umpiring opportunities all over the
world because of his love for the game and with the strong encouragement
of his tennis supervisors.
Hollins umpired his first match in 1991 and within three years had
received a gold badge, which qualifies him to umpire final matches
at the sport’s top tournaments. He umpired the inaugural match
at Arthur Ashe Stadium in 1997 and consistently received invitations
to the elite contests.
But that meteoric rise stopped, he said, when he began bringing
racial incidents to the attention of tennis officials who ignored
A new director of tennis officials, Richard Kaufman, allegedly told
Hollins he was lucky not to be dismissed from the game when he described
the treatment he had received from the New York Tennis Center groundskeeper.
In 2000, while a group of umpires sat together before a tournament
watching U.S. sprinter Maurice Greene run away from the field in
the Sydney Olympics, a white umpire stood and shouted, “Run,
nigger, run!” said Hollins.
“I sent a letter to Kaufman. He didn’t do anything,”
Further letters and communications to top USTA administrators went
unanswered, said Hollins, and in 2001 he was terminated.
“A lot of players ask me why I’m not doing matches any
more. And I tell them they’re chasing me out of tennis,”
Calls to Darryl Gay, a New York attorney representing the USTA,
were not returned. A USTA spokesman declined comment, citing pending
The plaintiffs have received support in their lawsuit from Mark
Manning, the former USTA president of Northern California. “I
am an African-American and know all too well the burden of being
‘the first and only’ to break the racial barriers of
continues to be a largely white-dominated organization,” said
Gary Ireland, a civil rights attorney representing the plaintiffs,
said Manning’s comments “perpetuate the well-founded
stereotype of tennis as a white, male-dominated elitist sport with
limited accessibility to acceptance of minority employees and certainly
distinguish modern tennis from the ideals set forth by Arthur Ashe.”