When Steve Maradian gave a talk to the baseball team at Los Angeles City College, he said, the players thanked him and gave him a hat.
So Maradian, president of the college, was shocked when a reporter showed him a letter signed by the members of the men’s basketball team -- an all-black squad and one of the strongest of any community college in California -- saying that a similar talk Maradian gave last Monday, before the season opener, was racist.
The letter called the talk a "lecture which reeked with the stench of blatant racism.” Maradian "informed us that we had to go to class if we planned on playing for the team, as if we didn’t already know this. [Head] Coach [Michael] Miller lets us know that every day."
Maradian, who arrived at City College in August, told the players "I was proud of them, and that their academics are of far more interest to me, because they have to transfer on,” he said.
The letter, which Maradian said he had no knowledge of until it was given to the Los Angeles Times, was signed by all 12 players, and Wendell Westbrook, a black assistant coach who was the only coach present when the president spoke. After the talk, but before he learned of the letter, a few of the players thanked him for coming to see them play, Maradian said.
It is unclear who actually penned the letter, which said that Maradian told the team not to "embarrass the school or ‘we will feel his wrath,’ ” it read. Said Maradian, “ ’Wrath?’ I don’t even speak that way.” Maradian said he noted in his talk that alcohol is not allowed on campus. The letter read: “We half expected him to warn us not to … sell crack in the library.”
The letter questioned whether Maradian would give such a talk to racially mixed teams -- he said he would and has, both at City College, to the baseball team, and at Middle Georgia College, when he was president there.
Westbrook said that the team captain first showed the letter to him and that he thought it was going to a dean, but that a former editor of the campus newspaper helped get it to the Times. Sources confirmed a section of the Times article that said that some of the players were upset with Maradian prior to the game because they blamed him for the suspension of Miller, who is also the athletics director, for the first game for violating South Coast Conference policy by smoking a cigar at a cross country meet. (Tobacco products are banned at all California community college events.)
After the president's talk, Westbrook said several players were incensed, and that he himself questioned why a similar talk had not been given to the women’s basketball team. Maradian said he is “remiss with the female sports,” but that he does plan to “give them the same encouragement.”
Maradian said the letter was especially disheartening because he spent much of his time in Georgia studying black history, and, when he was director of federal relations for the University System of Georgia, helped two Georgia institutions get a $900,000 grant to promote student success programs for minority students.
Westbrook pointed out that Maradian is of Armenian descent, though he is from Massachusetts. “Armenians are a clannish type of people,” he said. “They don’t do a good job of communicating with the black community.”
Westbrook said he thought some of the players were most upset because the talk got them down right before their first game. “It seemed like Dr. Maradian was a principal at a grade school, and he’s addressing the 5th or 6th grade students,” Westbrook said. “I think he had a preconceived notion about our program.”
Said Maradian: “This is a routine activity for me. I want to say you’re here to be a student-athlete. Let me know how I can help. Usually I think they are quite appreciative.”