Race Matters

A white track coach gets spooked in Cleveland Heights.

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Last school year, Don LeDonne, biology teacher and former coach of Cleveland Heights High School's girls' track team, wasn't getting his phone messages. He's the best coach the district has ever seen, yet boys' track coach Claude Holland was the one who took incoming calls about the track program -- probably taking most of the kudos -- and that burnt LeDonne's bread. Then a black parent complained that he "didn't want a white man coaching his daughter" and filed a Title IX action, alleging that boys got better coaching than the girls. LeDonne took it hard. But after athletic coordinator Desiree Powell accused him of knowingly entering two ineligible runners in an important championship meet, that was the end.

LeDonne resigned on May 23, alleging that Powell conspired with Holland (both are black), the switchboard operator, and perhaps other character assassins and reverse racists in a web of deceit intended to "discredit and undermine [his] ability as coach." He even drafted a letter, citing 12 or 14 points -- depending on which version you read -- of anecdotal evidence.

But one thing seems certain: Don LeDonne needed a hug and an occasional pat on the back in the worst way. He's a little paranoid, because lurking in every corner, he sees . . . black people. And they're comin' for him.

"Don was of the opinion that people were out to get him," says Principal James "Chip" Cippoletti. "So he resigned. But no one was looking to assign blame." LeDonne, however, was already in a sensitive place. He was a winning coach who wasn't the dinner-party guest of choice among the coaching staff. Coach Holland was able to endear himself to students, parents, and faculty in a way that LeDonne could not, according to some. Parents speak highly of Holland; a white mother of a former runner says that her son considers him "the most important adult in his life, besides his father."

LeDonne's strength lay in his ability to win and his responsiveness to the capacities and limitations of each runner. But he was rough-and-tumble -- a Texan with a bit of a temper, say some former students.

Some saw LeDonne's role as a small one. "I love Claude Holland, because he cares about his kids," says MaryAnn Barnes, a white parent whose daughter ran track for four years, under both LeDonne and Holland. "I don't think winning records are the most important thing. High school sports are there to help the child build relationships and to build the character of the child."

"Holland is charismatic, diplomatic, articulate, and loquacious," says Mary Boer, a former Heights runner. "He's got a real 'people personality' -- people were his specialty. LeDonne did his own thing. He was just mostly concerned about the win."

When you called the school switchboard and asked for a track coach, you got Coach Holland. LeDonne cited this as proof of collusion by forces unseen. Not only was his authority being usurped, but recruiters, press, and anyone else interested in talking track couldn't reach him. But Holland has an office, and as a biology teacher, LeDonne had neither an office nor a phone.

In his letter of resignation, LeDonne accuses Desiree Powell of signing off on the eligibility of two runners who were in fact ineligible, forcing their disqualification from seven events. As evidence, he presents an Official Eligibility Certificate dated September 4, 2002, bearing Desiree Powell's stamped signature. But Powell says she doesn't recall having seen the document, and in any event, the track season didn't begin until March 2003. An athlete who was eligible on the first day of school wouldn't necessarily be good to go some eight months later -- a point that should not have escaped LeDonne, who was informally charged with checking eligibility as well. (By all accounts, it is the athletic coordinator's duty to "monitor" student eligibility, even if, as Superintendent Carlton Moody says, "90 percent of the time" coaches are the ones to handle it.)

On June 12, Moody met with LeDonne and Thomas Schmida, president of the Heights High teachers' union, to discuss the resignation. During that meeting, he asked LeDonne whether he felt that any staff members had ulterior motives, race-related or otherwise. LeDonne said no. "As a matter of fact," says Moody, "Don denies ever having voiced or written any comments about race one way or another, and none of the comments attributed to Don made any mention of race."

Schmida concurs. "I don't know that Don ever made any charges of racism, interestingly enough," he says. "I think this is more a coach's turf war, and the race thing was something that the media read into it."

Yet, when the Free Times picked up on the story -- painting a portrait of a poor white coach, put upon by a militant mob of black administrators -- it clearly excerpted a line from LeDonne's resignation letter that referred to a "racially and personally motivated" campaign to oust him.

The Plain Dealer overlooked that point entirely, apparently because the papers saw different letters. The version The PD read contained 12 talking points, but the Free Times copy had 14 -- including the "racially and personally motivated" line.

LeDonne faxed an undated copy of his letter to Scene; it contained 12 points and made no mention of race. "That's the letter I sent to all the media and gave out at the school," he says. "I ain't got nothin' to hide here -- I want the truth to come out too."

Scene acquired an additional copy of the letter -- one LeDonne distributed on May 28, the day he resigned. In the first paragraph, it clearly states that LeDonne felt that the events leading to his resignation were "racially motivated" and lists 14 points of contention.

LeDonne thought better of his racial charges and crafted a softer version of his statement -- although he flatly denied it at first. When confronted with copies of both versions, he finally came clean.

"Look, this is the letter I wrote when I was angry," he says, pointing to the original. "And this is the revised version I wrote, after I'd given it some thought."

LeDonne claims that he never distributed the first version to staff members, even though those who have copies say they received those copies from him. The original was leaked to the press without his permission, he says. While LeDonne was never quoted in the Free Times articles, he admits to verifying information.

The experience of Dick Mann, another former Heights High coach, was cited in the Free Times as an example of the way blacks work the system. Mann does believe he was "pushed out," but attributes it to the world's oldest kind of affirmative action: cronyism. Dr. Charles M. Shadow, former Heights High principal, brought in his favorite track coach and good friend Claude Holland from John Adams High School, where they used to work together. "I don't think it had anything to do with race," Mann says.

"You don't think that, 90 percent of the time, if I were black," LeDonne queries rhetorically, "with a white parent telling me not to coach their kid, with an incompetent athletic coordinator trying to make me look bad, that I wouldn't be pulling a race card somewhere? I know there was collusion."

Not long after the Title IX action was filed, LeDonne says, there was a "secret meeting" of parents and team members, to which he was not invited. Most likely Powell was espousing some brand of racial propaganda, he contends.

"The meeting didn't have anything at all to do with race," says Powell. "It was set up so the girls could talk about their feelings about the Title IX action without feeling inhibited. None of the coaches were invited, and a few parents just kind of filtered in." Other students verify this account of the meeting.

The district is drafting a manual for students, parents, and administrators, so that miscommunications about student athletes won't happen again. And LeDonne, teaching a summer course at John Carroll University and still contracted to teach biology at Heights High in the fall, says that he would -- if he could -- revoke his resignation: He loves coaching and sees himself coaching again soon. But toward his colleagues and the people of Cleveland Heights, he's unapologetic about starting and fueling the race farce. In fact, he thinks he has an apology coming -- he just doesn't know from whom.

If you suggest to him that he let bygones be bygones, he'll refer to his damaged reputation. This wasn't a matter of race, he contends -- after all, some of his best friends are black. "I can't prove it was race, because it wasn't race, as far as I was concerned," he says. "I just know there was collusion. "

Still, LeDonne feels that there is an undercurrent of racial animus among the staff. "If you look at what has been the predominant trend," he says, "you'll see that the upper-level management percentage has nearly become all black. And there's a big resentment among older staff -- we have diversity, but we don't have integration."

Apparently LeDonne believed he wasn't getting the love and admiration he deserved, and Holland was -- because he was black. But maybe it was because he has a different style.

"You know what this eligibility thing was?" asks Schmida. "This was just a screw-up, and there were other issues that the coaches had -- just day-to-day kinda stuff, access and phone calls, and things like that -- and the eligibility thing was kind of the straw."

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