West Orange basketball team forced to withdraw from tournament in Clark due to T-shirts

A youth basketball team from West Orange poses with the team they beat in their first game at a tournament being held in the gyms at the Clark Recreation Center and Arthur L. Johnson High School. The front of the shirts of the West Orange team read ‘End racism’ while the backs read ‘Equality.’ Clark officials told the team they could not wear the shirts or they would be forced to leave. The team, coached by state Sen. Richard Codey, opted to leave.

CLARK, NJ — A youth basketball team from West Orange was forced to pull out of a tournament that was held in Clark after wearing warm up T-shirts that protested the actions of Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso, who has recently come under fire for using racial slurs. The tournament was being held in the gyms at the Clark Recreation Center and Arthur L. Johnson High School. The team, which is made up of seventh-graders and coached by state Sen. Richard Codey, was asked to either remove the shirts or pull out of the tournament, according to Codey. The front of the shirts read “End racism” while the backs read “Equality.”

“We played the first game, and then there was an hour before the next one,” Codey said in a phone interview on May 27. “The person in charge of the tournament approached the parents and said we couldn’t wear them.”

The tournament was run by Top Shelf Athletics, a youth sports league based in Englewood. Codey said the director, Calvin Harper, was told by Clark officials that the team could not wear the shirts. From Codey’s perspective, Harper stood to lose business if he allowed the team to wear the shirts and as a result could not rent the Clark gyms.

Harper did not respond to a request for comment by press time on May 31. He told NJ.com that he was not pressured by Clark officials to tell the team to remove the shirts.

“I told them I didn’t want my event used for their protest. They refused to do otherwise, so we agreed that they would leave,” Harper told NJ.com. “Our event had no attachment to politics or to the mayor of Clark. Yet, it was intentionally used to fill an agenda, without concern for me, the other teams or the community of teams I am trying to work within.”

A press release from the township of Clark on May 25 stated that Clark and the Clark School District rent out the gyms to outside organizations, and that they did not have a team playing in the tournament.

“The truth is, there were no Clark Township or school officials contacted or involved in the decision whether to let the senator’s team play,” the release read. “The decision was at the sole discretion of Mr. Harper and Top Shelf Athletics officials. The township did not have any involvement in this incident, the outcomes or in any way attempt to limit individual free speech.”

According to Codey, the decision to leave the tournament was unanimously made among the parents of the children, and the team members understood what was happening. They had spoken about what they were doing the night before. Codey said there was support among the other basketball players at the tournament; the West Orange team won the first game it played, and the losing team asked to take a photo with them afterward.

“They’re similar to what high school and college and some NBA teams have worn,” Codey said about the shirts. “It shouldn’t be offensive. The parents have a good grasp on it and how to handle it. I’m proud of them all.”

Photo Courtesy of Kelly Carey