Former coach sues college for racial discrimination

Linda Satchwell
Staff Writer

Feather River College, its athletic director Merle Trueblood and its head football coach James Johnson were sued Nov. 11 in United States District Court in Sacramento by Eric Small, former assistant head football coach, on charges of racial discrimination. Small is African-American.

According to Small’s attorney, Terri Keyser-Cooper of Reno, the lawsuit “alleges racism in the desire of the 2010 athletic department to cut black players from the team. In July 2010, Small was told the ‘face’ of the nearly all-black FRC football team would change. And change it did, the new coach changed the 2010 new recruits from 80 percent black to nearly 80 percent white.”

FRC staff declined to comment, on the advice of their legal counsel. Bruce Baldwin, director of outreach, did provide a press release, which had initially been sent out Aug. 2, detailing “caps” to all athletic team numbers for the 2010 year “due to budget cuts and the statewide enrollment cap.”

The football team would drop from a maximum number of 115 players to an 85-player “target” for the 2010–11 year. Other sports teams would experience similar cuts.

Small alleges that all of the black players that he recruited paid out-of-state tuition and would not be directly affected by the state cap, since the state doesn’t pay for them.

Out-of-state tuition is approximately half of what the state pays per student, however. With a much smaller pool of money — given required funding and enrollment caps — it may be that FRC felt the need to cut out-of-state students, as well. According to the release, “The school needed to be more selective in order to maintain quality programs with limited resources.”

The press release also noted “although FRC is an open access institution and offers an education to all, not every student athlete who applies will make the team in some sports.”

The release concludes, “FRC has one of the most diverse student populations in Northern California, and seeks to maintain that diversity while ensuring overall student success.”

Small’s legal document, which is 45 pages long, alleges a conscious, persistent strategy of discrimination from Trueblood, Johnson and others, including assistant football coach Josh White who, according to Small, was the most openly racist of the group.

Among the carefully detailed and dated claims, Small alleges that he was promised the head coaching position, and it was then given to Johnson, a Caucasian.

Because of the enrollment cap, he was told in July that he’d have to call his 21 new recruits and inform them that they would no longer have a place on the football team. This, after they had plane tickets, financial aid and housing in place.

Effectively, this action made Small look as though he’d deceived these players, and it destroyed his reputation as a successful recruiter of black, Southern players — a job he’d been doing for FRC since 2005.

Small said he felt responsible for these stranded players and helped to get some of them places on the football team at Sacramento City College.

Small alleges that Trueblood then filed a complaint with the California College Athletic Commission (CCAC) claiming Small had “improperly acted as an ‘agent’ for (Sacramento City College) to the detriment of FRC.” To Small’s knowledge, the CCAC has not acted on this complaint, but, according to court papers, Sacramento City College did investigate the Trueblood’s complaints and found them to be without merit.

Further, Small alleges that the rest of the all-white coaching staff, which worked diligently to get him to quit his union-protected job, marginalized him.

Small said that the “intolerable working conditions caused severe emotional and physical distress. In Aug. 2010 he left the college on a stress leave and has since resigned.”

In a letter from Small’s attorney Keyser-Cooper to Feather Publishing, she quotes herself and co-attorney Diane Vaillancourt: “This is one of the ugliest race cases we have ever seen, and we have seen some ugly ones in our 20 plus years’ practice … FRC’s football department treated its young black athletes in a despicable and overtly racist manner, and what it did to Eric Small was even worse.”


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