Hemelt: Swim team’s story impacts entire community

Published 11:45 pm Friday, August 8, 2014

One of my favorite television comedy shows right now is Key and Peele, a 30-minute commentary and sketch program airing on Comedy Central.

The stars, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, tackle many topics but focus mainly on race relations, poking fun while consistently delivering poignant observations on the issues that divide this nation based on skin color.

One recent sketch joked that being called “racist” is the worst thing for white people.

During their standup routine, they joked about how white people flip out when you call them racist.

The joke’s impact, as is the case with the best comedians, comes in its truthfulness. It exists across all races.

Someone who is not racist and chooses not to judge others based on skin color cannot stand to have that accusation thrown in his or her face. It cuts to the core of their soul and almost always elicits an intense response.

Predictably, this is taking place in our community right now.

The Piranha Swim Team, a youth swim squad based in St. John the Baptist Parish, has for years participated in the River Parish Swim League.

During a vote of team representatives that passed this week by a close 4-3 margin (fellow St. John teams Riverlands and LARAYO voted to keep Piranha in the league), Piranha Swim Team was removed from the league.

Piranha Swim Team’s assistant coach, head coach, league representative and team treasurer said they felt the team’s removal was based in part on discrimination, because they say Piranha Swim Team is comprised of many black swimmers, whereas other teams are not.

This accusation shot through the River Parishes because it was made in a press release, emailed to countless recipients and shared ferociously on social media.

Those who did not agree, correctly, felt insulted that they were labeled unfairly simply by being part of the league. Those who believed the claims of the Piranha Swim Team’s leadership defended the accusation as the accurate statement of adults placed in a role of leadership.

It created a storm as both sides stood by their integrity.

L’OBSERVATEUR has consistently covered the River Parish Swim League each summer, showcasing the winners and running pictures of the many young and accomplished athletes.

Our role as the community newspaper of record demanded we report on this story, because a local youth team was removed from its league and included more than 100 young girls and boys on a displaced team.

It’s our job to ask those involved to go on the record as to why they think the situation occurred, report their reasoning accurately and leave it to our readers to form their own opinions.

With cases like this, no matter what is reported, there is going to be a negative backlash. Some of those on each side will blame the newspaper for reporting the others’ feelings.

To this day, I do not have an opinion on who is right or wrong in this situation. That’s not my job. I believe the readers of L’OBSERVATEUR are smart people who can make up their own minds.

Those who think we do this to create attention couldn’t be more wrong. Outside of insulting comments made about our staffers in regular conversation and shared on social media, some take their displeasure closer to home.

So was the case here, when I received a call at my home from someone that did not want to give their name, who said the reporting needed to change or I would be visited at my front door.

The statement was clear, the tone of voice unmistakable. My safety and the sanctity of my home, which includes my wife, 4-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son, were threatened.

This wasn’t the first time someone threatened my family or myself, and it won’t be the last time.

I trust and pray should the threat be real — and in this case I’m certain it wasn’t — I’m in a position to protect my family.

So, of course, it would have been easier to skip this story, but our community members deserve better. They should and can be trusted to make up their own minds on issues of controversy and deep passion.

It’s the job we signed up for, good news or bad.

Stephen Hemelt is general manager and editor of L’OBSERVATEUR. He can be reached at 985-652-9545 or stephen.hemelt@lobservateur.com.