Being a high-school coach, I get regular emails from the Arizona Interscholastic Association, including complete minutes from their Executive Board Meetings (which I actually read). Don’t envy me.
A lot of the items are on the boring (but necessary) side—illegal transfers, coaches yelling at refs, schools trying to gain an advantage by dropping down to a lower classification. A couple items were on the sad side. The once-mighty Flowing Wells softball program, the winner of multiple state championships not that long ago, canceled its 2021 season. Immaculate Heart, where I coached two state high jump champions (and if you’ve ever seen me, you’ll know that I wasn’t demonstrating the technique myself) a few years back, canceled its entire track program.
And then there was this:
“LETTER FROM FLAGSTAFF HIGH SCHOOL – JAMES DUGAN
Tony Cullen, Principal, as well as Jeannine Brandel, Athletic Director at Flagstaff High School, discussed the request from Flagstaff regarding James Dugan and rescinding his 10-game suspension.”
I’ve seen lots of suspension notices and appeals, but this one caught my eye. I’m glad it did, because the suspension that was being appealed dates back 57 years.
On a January night in 1964, Flagstaff High’s boys’ basketball team was in Prescott for a game with its archrivals. James Dugan was the best player on the floor that night. In fact, he was the best player on the floor every night. In his previous game, he had torched Winslow High for 54 points, which is STILL the school record.
As a prep, Dugan was named to different All-American teams in football, basketball, and baseball. When a list of the Top 100 Arizona high-school athletes of the 20th Century was released, Dugan was in the Top 10.
Flagstaff, while remote, was a college town and more cosmopolitan than other Northern Arizona towns. The sports teams at Flagstaff High were completely integrated, with a significant number of African-Americans, Native Americans and Latinos on the rosters.
It was two months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the country was in turmoil. The Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum and within the next 18 months, President Lyndon Johnson would push the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act through Congress. But for James Dugan and other Black kids, Flagstaff was something of an oasis. And if he liked his hometown, his hometown LOVED him.
He was probably the most well-known and best-liked person in town. But the game wasn’t in Flagstaff; it was in Prescott. And if Flagstaff was a 1960s model of diversity, Prescott was whiter than the British Royal Family (well, until recently).
Not surprisingly, there were starkly different accounts of what happened that night, what led up to the incident that changed James Dugan’s life. It was a nasty game, rough and often dirty. The Prescott players grabbed Dugan’s jersey, fouled a little bit extra hard, and, according to most reports, joined in with a significant number of people in the stands in hurling racial epithets at Dugan.
Late in the game, Dugan was assessed his fifth foul. As he began to leave the floor, he suddenly turned and punched Prescott player Randy Emmett in the face, breaking Emmett’s jaw. Dugan and several witnesses said that, after having been called the N-word dozens of times during the game by Prescott fans and players, the breaking point came when Emmett spit in Dugan’s face.
The gym had to be cleared so that Flagstaff could finish off the close win. Despite a police escort for the visiting team, all of the windows were broken out of the Flagstaff bus by rocks thrown by Prescott fans.
Not surprisingly, the Prescott players swore that none of them had said anything improper and that any use of the N-word came from a small group of rowdy fans. The daily papers from the two towns had wildly differing accounts of what happened. A few days later, Dugan again traveled to Prescott, this time to visit Emmett in the hospital. There is no record of what transpired during that meeting, but somewhat tellingly, Emmett’s family declined to press charges.
The people in Prescott went in another direction. They appealed to the AIA for Dugan to be punished. The AIA met in secret, invited no witnesses, took no testimony, and then issued a 10-game suspension, effectively ending Dugan’s senior year and high-school career. The Flagstaff School Board and the City Council both expressed outrage at both the decision and the manner at which it had been determined. The suspension stood.
Earlier this year, a petition was circulated through Flagstaff, asking that the AIA produce a symbolic reversal of its generations-old injustice. But…
“On a motion made, seconded and carried, the Executive Board DENIED the request from Flagstaff High School to rescind the 10-game suspension.”