September 15 , 2005 – Vol. 41, No. 5

Black tennis officials alleging racial bias

Virgil Wright

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 Arthur Ashe.

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 matches.

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 unheard.

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 federal lawsuit.

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 his complaints.

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,” said Hollins.

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,” said Hollins.

Calls to Darryl Gay, a New York attorney representing the USTA, were not returned. A USTA spokesman declined comment, citing pending litigation.

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 Manning.

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.”




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