The unrest in Thomson’s football program did not end with a school board decision on Thursday night. It’s only beginning.
A day after the McDuffie County school board voted 5-2 along racial lines to keep Bulldogs head football coach Rob Ridings, 35 Thomson players reportedly walked out of the last day of spring practice on the eve of Saturday night’s spring game against Peach County in Fort Valley, Ga.
This, unfortunately, may be the new normal with Thomson football for the foreseeable future. It’s a story built on rumors simmering with race, injustice and abuse of power that stirs distrust and tears at the fabric of a community. Football has long been a uniting force in Thomson, but it’s currently a source of division at a time when the Bulldogs are poised to build on their most successful season in 14 years.
Ridings may have won the backing of the school board and the boosters in town who care about the 25-3 record his teams posted the last two seasons, including a trip to the Class AAAA championship game at the Georgia Dome last December. But he hasn’t won the hearts of some parents who believe he crossed the line when he crossed the street to settle a situation with a 14-year-old middle school student.
Ridings allegedly pulled the young student out of class and scolded him in an office with two other adults present.
“He towered over him, had his hand in his face … cursing him, threatening him, intimidating him and bullying him,” said Jennifer Samuels, the mother of the alleged victim, on Thursday.
While not releasing any details of the incident or investigation, the board’s statement Thursday night said only that it “involved no use of profanity or physical contact by the employee.”
Ridings – who has not responded to text messages requesting comment – was assessed a suspension without pay that began April 24 and ended May 5, covering 10 working days of his administrative leave . That’s a sizeable fine exceeding $4,000 to the coach’s wallet, considering his last posted salary in 2015 is listed at $106,295.04.
But that wasn’t enough to appease his critics, who used words like “kidnapping” and “child abuse” and “held against will” when they spoke up at the public meeting. Some gathered in the parking lot after the board’s ruling, praying about both injustice and healing.
This is not the kind of incident that just blows over with the next football victory at the Brickyard. Trying to reestablish trust with his players, their parents and the local African-American community will be the biggest professional challenge of Ridings’ career, far exceeding anything that Cartersville and the state’s best young quarterback threw Thomson’s way in the Georgia Dome five months ago.
Ridings’ coaching bona fides are unimpeachable. He was the offensive coordinator under legendary coach Luther Welsh the last time the Bulldogs won a state championship in 2002. He returned to Thomson as head coach in 2014 to rebuild a program that was struggling to regain its former glory. He succeeded. The Bulldogs should be reloaded for another title run with a slew of starters returning from last year’s 14-1 team.
But whatever goodwill returning was lost when Ridings went out of his jurisdiction to confront a middle schooler. That his first day returning after missing most of spring practice included a player walkout speaks volumes about the task ahead.
One passionate member of the Thomson football community – a Ridings supporter – expressed feelings “beyond sad” and worries that the fallout may be cutting so deep that it might take years to recover “if at all.”
I’ve covered more than a dozen Thomson football games since Ridings took the helm three seasons ago and attended several practices to see him at work with his team. His conduct and interaction with players has always been exemplary. He works tirelessly to get his kids of all races into college.
None of that excuses how he handled this situation. Ridings has every right to counsel and discipline the players and students under his jurisdiction. He had no right to cross the street and walk in the back door of another school to deal with a 14-year-old regardless of the motivation. From all the various accounts of what might have happened, Ridings seems to have blurred the line between concerned parent and stern coach.
Fair or not, the sides have broken along a racial divide. Ridings can’t hide without comment forever. He can’t move his program forward without addressing the matter publicly and tackling it head on.
Coaches are always preaching accountability in their players, both on the field and off. It’s time for Ridings to practice what he preaches in order to start mending bridges.
His future and the immediate future of Thomson football may depend on it.