by Marcus Harrison Green
It’s been nearly two months since Garfield High School Head Football Coach Joey Thomas was accused of improperly recruited a teen from Beaumont, TX to play running back at the Seattle school last fall. Since then, the coach has been unable to defend himself as the story circulated throughout local press and the hallways at school. But all that changed late Tuesday morning after the Seattle Public School District (SPS) announced he had been cleared of any wrongdoing.
SPS put Thomas under a gag order, as attorney Phil Thompson, an independent investigator hired by the school in late April, assessed whether or not the 36-year-old coach had surreptitiously lured Will Sanders from the Lone Star State to suit up for the Bulldogs during the 2016 season.
Sanders, now 19, was the team’s third leading rusher, generally entering games only when the Bulldogs had a considerable lead, according to his former teammates. He claimed in interviews with The Seattle Times and KIRO News in late April that he had been given a raw deal after Thomas promised him lavish prospects that never materialized, in exchange for on-field performance.
“They told me everything I wanted to hear: ‘Yeah, come up here and get a scholarship. You’ll have a place to stay. You won’t have to worry about nothing.” Sanders told KIRO in a May 16 interview, referencing an alleged conversation with Thomas.
However, early Tuesday morning, Thomas said the school district phoned him to tell him the investigation was concluded, and they had no grounds to pursue the allegations any further.
In a statement sent out Tuesday, the school district said, “The investigation concludes there is no evidence that head football coach, Joey Thomas, violated WIAA and District recruiting rules.”
Though the news came as a relief to Thomas, he says the entire ordeal proved taxing.
“I’m just extremely disappointed in the entire investigation process,” Thomas said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “I love working for Seattle Public Schools but we need to find a better way to protect employees,” . [Ed note: Thomas and Marcus Green attended high school together in the late ’90s.]
Thomas says he believes the nearly two-month-long investigation lacked transparency, as he was rarely kept abreast of its status or given a timetable for when it might conclude. He relied on media reports to keep up with the case.
“Look, protocols need to be changed, quite frankly,” he says. “It was obvious to me that the media was receiving information from a source close to the investigation, which made the process anything but fair,” citing news reports updating the investigation while he was left in limbo about its status.
Thomas, who played 6 years in the NFL as a cornerback, says he views the media’s coverage of the investigation as biased.
“I understand the media has to do their job, but I think it was irresponsible journalism to just take the word of a 19-year-old without verifying basic facts,” he says. “I’m a father and husband before anything. It was tough on my family and the Garfield community to see the smears in the Times and on KIRO. Nothing can make up for the anxiety this caused my players,” says Thomas, adding he has yet to be contacted by the Seattle Times, who first broke the story of the investigation.
While Thomas couldn’t speak, he did have several defenders displaying their support via Op-Eds and media interviews. They met today’s news with relief and resolve.
“Now that Coach Thomas has been exonerated, this speaks to a bigger issue,” says King County NAACP President Gerald Hankerson. “The issue of SPS district leaks, and senior leadership manipulation of district investigations based on rumors and not facts. This is especially noteworthy of the legal and Human Resources department,”
Hankerson sees Thomas’s case as a larger pattern of a school district quick to discipline facility and students of color more harshly than their white counterparts. According to the district’s own data, African-American students were suspended at a rate 4 times higher than that of white students according to data from the 2013-2014 school year.
John McKinney, the man who first enrolled Sanders in Garfield, says he wasn’t surprised by the investigation’s outcome.
“Joey never did anything wrong,” says McKinney, who knew Sanders’ father and helped the teen get situated in Seattle at the urging of a mutual friend. “I always knew what had really happened. It was a made up story to begin with.”
McKinney says he thinks the investigation originated from someone jealous of Thomas, aided by local media eager to tell a “sensationalized” story about a Black coach exploiting the talents of a young Black man.
“Someone was out to get Joey. The media needs to spend time on that story,” says McKinney, who says he received numerous threatening phone calls and text messages after his comments on the investigation were published in the South Seattle Emerald in late May.
In a voicemail McKinney provided, a man identifying himself as Walter Jones berates McKinney and threatens violence against him for going on the record to the Emerald saying, “How could you do what you did after all me and Sparks did for your son?”
“Sparks” is a reference to Derrick Sparks, the previous Garfield High football coach who resigned prior to Thomas filling the position.
Sparks, who also contacted McKinney after the interview, aided McKinney’s son Cameron in getting a college scholarship while at Garfield High. Sparks has yet to respond to interview requests.
With matters finally concluded, some of Thomas’s Garfield colleagues seemed eager to put the investigation behind them.
“I’m glad to hear Joey Thomas has been vindicated. He’s provided invaluable leadership in our school and our community–from allowing dialogue on the football team about taking a knee during the anthem to demand justice to promoting discussions on the team about proactively challenging sexism and and violence against women,” said Jesse Hagopian, a Garfield High teacher.
Thomas says he is looking forward to enjoying the summer without the investigation hanging over his head. But it will likely still be on his mind for some time, he says.
“I hope news that I didn’t do anything wrong makes it on the front page of the Seattle Times,” he says. “I’m not holding my breath though.”
Marcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, the current scholar-in-residence at Town Hall Seattle, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000