By Alison Daley
Rev. Donald Harrington, the president of St. John’s University, defended his use of the word “culture” at a meeting with hundreds of outraged students on campus last week amid charges he had made a racist remark about the school’s six black basketball players accused in a sex scandal.
Harrington faced heavy criticism from students after he compared the “culture” of the predominately black basketball team to the predominately white soccer team.
In a television interview with ABC, Harrington was quoted as saying “culture is really what it’s about. For example, we have a men’s soccer team here at St. John’s — and I have no doubt I’m gonna go out on a limb here — I don’t think it could happen there.”
One member of the St. John’s men’s basketball team was expelled and four others were suspended after a woman falsely accused them of rape at an after-hours dalliance in their Pittsburgh hotel following a game on the road. A sixth player voluntarily withdrew from the university.
“When I think of our students, I do not think of race or any other distinction,” said Harrington Friday in response to a student who asked for justification for his comparing the two sports teams and if racism exists on campus. “I apologize for the comments because clearly it saddened and concerned many of our students and that’s the last thing I would want to do, especially at a difficult time like this.”
Harrington, who addressed a standing-room-only crowd of students in the auditorium, admitted he used a poor choice of words. He said he was referring to “culture” as an environment or a series of expectations the university would not want or would not support. Harrington stressed to the audience filled with many minority students that he did not mean religious culture or ethnic culture. He was speaking about the culture of the team and the interaction and behavior of the players with each other, he said.
Fabrice Armand, the Queens student body president, urged students to look beyond Harrington’s words and focus on the real issue — the players’ behavior and actions in Pittsburgh.
“I think that it was a poor choice of words and a better word would have been ‘mentality,’ ‘attitude,’ and I expect that from father myself,” Armand told the assembly.
Harrington has also been heavily criticized by students on campus for talking to the media before addressing the university about the scandal. In his defense, he told students he was in Florida at a fund-raising event, raising money for scholarships when he heard the news. Harrington said he had to immediately address the media to defend himself and the university.
Harrington addressed the campus in a letter to the student body nearly a week after speaking to the media. “We needed to hear from father way before it was done and I think that was the issue,” Armand said.
Harrington said in the letter he had been told that interim coach Kevin Clark sat in the hallway outside of the players’ hotel rooms in Pittsburgh until 12:15 a.m. after the team members had returned to their rooms at 11 p.m.
“No one has had disciplinary action taken against them by the university because of breaking team rules. It’s been because of the unacceptable behavior that took place that evening,” Harrington told last week’s meeting.
Harrington assured students he has absolutely no intention of canceling the remainder of the basketball season. He and Armand applauded the team’s walk-on members, who Harrington played with their “heart and soul,” showing their dedication to the university through their performance on the court during the games following the incident in Pittsburgh.
“The young men who are on that team have worked very hard and have represented us very well,” Harrington said.
The SJU president noted he would only suspend the basketball team if the members themselves request that the season be canceled because the pressure is too difficult to handle.
Although Harrington refused to answer questions about the termination of former coach Mike Jarvis, he acknowledged that Jarvis is no longer part of the university and evaluating him would serve no purpose.
“It’s very, very natural to seek a scapegoat when you have a very major difficult problem, and I do not believe it is appropriate for us to look for a scapegoat,” Harrington said. “Ultimately the responsibility is mine and I accept that.”
Harrington repeatedly said Jarvis should not be blamed for the incidents in Pittsburgh or for the players’ behavior that evening.
“As long as some of our students are troubled by what I said, I will continue to try my best to help them understand what I truly believe.”
Reach Alison Daley by e-mail at email@example.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 162.