2014-02-12 / Sports

Banquet brawl: Who's to blame?

VSU report claims trash talking, ‘Let’s eat’ chant helped spark pregame altercation
By Jim McConnell

Virginia State University Athletic Director Peggy Davis suggested in a letter to the CIAA commissioner that the conference’s football banquet, held on the campus of Winston-Salem State University, wasn’t “neutral and fair to both programs.” 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Virginia State University Athletic Director Peggy Davis suggested in a letter to the CIAA commissioner that the conference’s football banquet, held on the campus of Winston-Salem State University, wasn’t “neutral and fair to both programs.” Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Observer Donald Reaves’ message to Virginia State University was clear: Whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.

About 48 hours after VSU issued the findings of its investigation into a November incident that prompted the cancellation of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association football championship game, Winston-Salem State University’s chancellor responded by scoffing at both the report’s conclusions and the methods used in its preparation.

“I cannot understand how the investigator could uncover the facts of the incident when his interviews were limited to people who study or work at VSU. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that they all tell the same story,” Reaves said in a statement last week.

Three months after a fight that broke out during a pregame banquet left Winston-Salem State quarterback Rudy Johnson with multiple injuries, both universities continue to point fingers. VSU claims players from Winston- Salem State instigated the incident during the banquet, with taunts and chants, and assign blame to the North Carolina university and the CIAA for moving the game between the two teams from a neutral site to WSSU’s home field.

The CIAA is also investigating the incident, but has yet to release its findings. Still, Reaves expressed dismay at VSU’s conclusions.

“No interviews were conducted with people from WSSU who were in attendance and no requests for such interviews have been received,” Reaves said in a statement. “The report relied almost exclusively on the testimonials of the young men who may have been involved in the assault on WSSU quarterback Rudy Johnson, which is a serious methodological flaw that raises questions about the credibility of its conclusions.”

Because of those questions, Reaves added, “I find it hard to believe that anyone would take seriously the findings of this report.”

Johnson claimed that he was assaulted by as many as six VSU football players in a bathroom during the CIAA’s Nov. 15 football banquet in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The 6-2, 205-pound junior reported that he was punched, kicked and stomped. He suffered a black eye and cuts to his face, and also said he had soreness in his ribs and back.

“To ignore the physical damage inflicted upon this young man, or to conclude that it was caused by a single assailant wielding a single punch, is absurd,” Reaves said. “The only thing that this report uncovered was the facts according to VSU.”

Winston-Salem State campus police interviewed four VSU football players who were present in the bathroom at the time of the incident, but all denied that they had attacked Johnson.

Johnson was able to identify only one of his alleged assailants: VSU running back Lamont Britt, who was arrested the same day and charged with misdemeanor assault causing serious injury.

Britt, 23, of Portsmouth, is scheduled to appear in Forsyth District Court in North Carolina on April 15.

He has been suspended by VSU for the spring semester and placed on university probation for one year. He also is required to complete anger-management counseling and 30 hours of community service.

VSU’s investigation, which was performed by Washington attorney Robert Clayton, concluded that only one of its football players was involved in the incident. It also dismissed Reaves’ earlier claim that the attack had been premeditated and carried out to prevent Johnson from playing in the following day’s CIAA championship game.

Clayton’s 75-page report suggests that Britt punched Johnson after the two exchanged trash talk in the bathroom.

“VSU neither condones nor excuses this type of behavior, despite any perceived provocation,” the university said in a statement last week.

The issue of “provocation” first was raised by several VSU alumni during a contentious Nov. 18 news conference on the Ettrick campus.

Frustrated by the CIAA’s decision to hold the football banquet on Winston-Salem State’s campus and move the championship game to Winston-Salem State’s home stadium, the alumni claimed that the atmosphere surrounding the event was hostile to VSU from the start.

The situation was exacerbated, they said, by the fact that no university officials accompanied the football players and coaches on the trip.

According to VSU spokesman Thomas Reed, university President Keith Miller and Athletic Director Peggy Davis attended a regularly scheduled Board of Visitors meeting on the morning of the banquet.

“They were planning to travel to Winston- Salem later in the day. Ms. Davis was en route when informed of the incident,” Reed said last week.

In a letter to CIAA Commissioner Jacqie Carpenter, Davis related a report from VSU’s coaches that the seating arrangement and setup at the banquet were not “conducive to good order.”

“Winston-Salem State University was favored during the event,” she wrote. “Representatives from the CIAA office who were present during the event did nothing to make sure the event was neutral and fair to both programs.”

VSU head coach Latrell Scott expounded on Davis’ comments in his own letter to Carpenter.

VSU had been told that the banquet would begin at 11:30 a.m., Scott wrote, but Winston- Salem State’s players and coaches didn’t arrive until approximately 30 minutes later.

Scott noted that Winston-Salem State’s players were dressed in all black and took several team pictures, further delaying the start of the banquet.

Once the luncheon began, Scott claimed that both Reaves and a CIAA official made remarks that he and many of his players found offensive – prompting an unidentified VSU player to request that the team leave the event immediately.

“The WSSU players were seated at a table within an arm’s length of the table where my players were seated,” Scott wrote. “Throughout the luncheon, several WSSU initiated trash talking with my players that created tension between the two teams.”

Scott’s letter recalled that “tensions were further increased” when Winston-Salem State head coach Connell Maynor (now head football coach at Hampton University) directed his players to begin chanting, “Let’s eat!” prior to food being served.

“We will be working with the CIAA to ensure a situation such as what occurred this year is not repeated,” Reed said.

Reaves found it “interesting” that VSU’s players and coaches were offended by his introductory comments during the banquet.

“I commended both teams for their accomplishments and the work that it took to get to the championship game,” Reaves said. “As chancellor of Winston-Salem State, I did not believe that it was out of place for me to wish my own team well.

“Had VSU leadership been in attendance at the championship banquet, I am sure that they would have extended similar well-wishes to the VSU players. That is what we would have expected and we would not have been offended.”

Reaves also claimed that “Let’s eat!” has been a team chant for the past four years.

“The team had used the same chant at previous conference championship luncheons without any reaction from opposing teams, and it certainly has never incited opponents to violence,” he added.

Sharon Goldmacher, a representative of the CIAA’s public relations firm, said last week that conference officials are still performing their own investigation.

As they wait for the release of the conference’s findings, both universities have plenty at stake.

On Nov. 21, Reaves filed a formal complaint against VSU with the NCAA and CIAA. He alleged major violations and criticized the university for lacking institutional control of its football team during its visit to the Winston-Salem State campus.

Reaves has asked the CIAA to levy financial sanctions that would force VSU to reimburse Winston-Salem State for loss of revenue due to the cancellation of the conference championship game.

Such an outcome would add insult to injury for VSU, which was banned by the CIAA from participating in the NCAA Division II playoffs in the wake of the banquet incident.

The Trojans, who had finished the regular season with a 9-1 record, almost certainly would’ve qualified for the playoffs regardless of the result of its game against Winston- Salem State.

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