TYLER WILLIAMS: New UA Fort Smith coach didn’t approve of his hairstyle. Credit: UA-Fort Smith

Social media has forced into the open a complaint about the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith basketball coach related to his reported disapproval of a player’s “dreadlocks” hairstyle.

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Chancellor Terisa Riley acknowledged the controversy today without identifying the people involved and said the matter was under review. She commented the university would not tolerate retaliation or racism.

Here’s what’s known:

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Tyler Williams, a guard from Edmonds, Okla., was second-leading scorer for UA-Fort Smith last year. Jim Boone, then coaching at Delta State in Mississippi, was hired as coach of the team in April.


Over the weekend, this Twitter post by a woman who identified herself as a UA-FS student, began circulating.

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It included what appears to be a note to UA-FS (full document here) from Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Williams, complaining about a meeting Boone had had with their son. By this account, Boone said he didn’t like the player’s hairstyle (dreadlocks) and would not recruit others with similar hair. The parents subsequently met with the coach Aug. 16 and, according to their note, were initially told he wouldn’t make Tyler Williams cut his hair because he was a senior. But he reportedly made clear he didn’t like it. When the Williams said there’d been a court ruling in California in support of ‘natural’ hair, Boone reportedly responded: “I don’t have to deal with that. I don’t live in California.” The Williamses said Boone ultimately grew angry and dimissed their son from the team.

The parents contend a prohibition on a certain hairstyle amounts to racial discrimination. Their note included high points of their son’s academic and athletic record.

On Aug. 25, Tyler Williams announced on Twitter he was transferring to a school in Oklahoma.

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COACH JIM BOONE: Reportedly happy to be in Arkansas, not Callifornia. Credit: UA-Fort Smith

I wrote the basketball coach Saturday asking for a comment about the social media reports. He didn’t respond, but I was included on the distribution of the chancellor’s note to the campus community today.

It said:

Good morning,
By now, many of you have read about an allegation of discrimination based on race which has been widely publicized on social media involving a head coach and a former student. Today, my message is sent in the spirit of transparency which I have promised to you as your chancellor.
First, the university received a copy of the allegation from a student and his parents approximately two weeks ago. At that time, the allegation was sent to the university’s EEO officer in the Department of Human Resources to be investigated. This is our standard practice for investigating any allegations of wrong-doing against employees of the university. The Department of Human Resources has not issued a final report; thus, I will not comment on specifics of the investigation in order to protect the rights of the employee and former student.
The University of Arkansas-Fort Smith will not tolerate racism or retaliation. We never want a student to leave the university feeling disrespected or devalued, and this situation serves as a powerful reminder that we must continually assess and work to create an inclusive environment that values all members of our community.
Dr. Terisa Riley

I circulated the student’s note on Twitter over the weekend and it drew a number of responses, most — but not all — critical of a coach attempting to dictate hairstyle. Dreadlocks are a relatively common sight on athletic fields and courts.

One favorable response was this one:

UPDATE: The parents talked about the situation on a Houston talk show today, about 1:20 into the segment. They want the coach removed.

UPDATE II: I heard this afternoon from Tom Mars, the Arkansas attorney who’s established himself as a player in legal matters relating to intercollegiate athletics.

His note to me:

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I read your piece about the “fuss” created by Coach Boone’s opinions regarding student-athlete grooming standards. As you might expect, there’s more to this story than what you’ve been told.
Coach Boone has retained me to help him set the record straight. I’ll be able to give you more details tomorrow; however, I can share with you now what’s behind the allegations aimed at Coach Boone.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen baseless accusations made against a head coach by a student-athlete whose real motive is to create grounds for a waiver from the NCAA. In this case, the student-athlete has already used the “one-time transfer without penalty” exception to avoid sitting out a year following a transfer from one school to another. Therefore, the only way he’ll be able to play basketball next season is to create a narrative that might cause the NCAA to believe that he transferred because he was somehow mistreated by his former school’s coaching staff.
He wasn’t mistreated, and the issue about his hair had nothing to do with his decision to leave UA-Fort Smith. To the contrary, this student-athlete transferred to a school in Oklahoma because Coach Boone had recruited some players who were more talented. It was fairly obvious to everyone – including this player- that he wasn’t going to get much time on the court next season if he stayed at UA-Fort Smith. That’s the real reason he transferred.
What he’s doing now is just a shot from half court in an effort to create grounds for a waiver. Unfortunately, this scenario occurs all too often in college sports when players and their parents realize that’s the only route available to seek a waiver of the NCAA’s “year in residence” requirement following a transfer.
As John Madden would say, that’s what it’s all about.

UPDATE 2: I asked Tom Mars about the Williams’ recording of their conversation with the coach and whether he disputed things they’d said. His response by e-mail:

Coach Boone was given a copy of the recording. So he know what’s on there. Needless to say, he doesn’t deny anything he said that’s clearly audible on the recording.
He didn’t punish this student-athlete over his hair. In fact, he never made this player cut or change his hair. Photos of this player’s hair over the past year show that his hairstyle never changed. Coach Boone was around this player all summer and even had him come to his home for dinner. What’s more, internal contemporaneous records reflect the Coach commenting on the player’s appearance by saying he looked “great.”
Coach Boone’s attitude about player’s hair styles is admittedly old-school, but it’s not discriminatory. He’d feel the same way if a young Larry Byrd was playing for UA-Fort Smith. That said, he’s going to make it abundantly clear that he recruits players based on their talent and character. He’s also going to make clear that, despite what he thinks about personal grooming for student-athletes, he doesn’t believe (and never has) that a player’s hairstyle, tattoo sleeves, or body piercings are indicative of a person’s character or their potential to become the next Larry Byrd or LeBron James.