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Parents File Suit Over Portrayal of Team Ritual

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) - The parents of three high school football players who participated in a controversial post-game ritual of smashing watermelons sued the Charleston County School District for defamation.

In a lawsuit filed in the county common pleas court, the parents claim the Charleston County School District and Charleston City Paper, a local alternative newspaper, falsely portrayed their sons as racist as debate raged over the ritual last month.

During the ritual, which took place after team wins, members of Academic Magnet High School football team gathered in a circle and smashed watermelons, while their teammates chanted "Whoo Whoo Whoo."

However, one opposing team member's parents objected and complained to the district that the students were making "monkey-like" sounds.

Initially, the Charleston County School District maintained the players were engaging in an innocent ritual and that the coaches had no concerns it was be perceived as being racist in tone. But after an investigation that included interviews with 30 students, coach Bud Walpole and two assistant coaches, the district decided "the practices that were part of this ritual were not something that the adults should have sanctioned."

Walpole was immediately relieved of all of his coaching duties, but just two days later, he was rehired after agreeing to participate in a district-sponsored sensitivity program and to discuss with his players the importance of being sensitive to the feelings of people of different races or backgrounds.

The NAACP's Charleston branch has called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the rehiring of a high school football coach who allowed his team to engage in the ritual.

The players parents maintain the investigation, and several statements attributed to school officials by the City Paper, damaged their son's reputations.

During the investigations, they say, the defendants falsely portrayed the team as making monkey sounds and drawing a monkey face on the watermelon in an effort to case their black opponents in a derogatory light.

"The defendants by their statements falsely accused the team and plaintiffs of being racially prejudiced," the parents say.

They then go on to cite several incidents of this alleged behavior, including an October 16, 2014 statement by Louis J. Martin, assistant superintendent of education for the Charleston school district, in which he purportedly said the team, "had engaged in a game ritual after football games in which the football team would draw a monkey face on a watermelon and after a victory, would smash fruit and make animal noises."

They attribute similar descriptions of the ritual to Nancy McGinley, who resigned from her position as schools superintendent at the height of the controversy.

"The false and defamatory statements made by the defendants and their agents ... were published to others and were published in the print media as well as local and national television," the parents say. "The print media and television programs falsely depicted the Academic Magnet High School team and the plaintiffs ... as being racist."

As for the City Paper, the plaintiffs say the paper defamed they and their sons in a November 5, 2014, article entitled, "Mob Rules." The story, by Chris Haire, described the ritual as one "that would be perceived as racist by any sensible outside observer."

Of the district's departing superintendent, Haire write, "Perhaps she too had bought into the hype that the Holy City had shaken off its racist past, that our Lowcountry home had been born anew as American's most beloved tourist town. Perhaps she genuinely thought that the community would rise up with her and condemn this racist behavior. But it didn't."

"The article when read as a whole, falsely accuses the football team and the plaintiffs of being racist," the parents say.

They seek actual and punitive damages on claims of personal injury, assault, slander and libel.

The parents are represented by John Parker and William Barnes III of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, PA in Charleston.

A call to the school district requesting comment was not returned on Wednesday.

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