Photo of Covington students in black paint at a basketball game goes viral. Here's what we know
Fallout continues after videos emerged last week of an interaction between students from a private Kentucky boys school and Native American marchers outside the Lincoln Memorial.
Videos of the event of the event have become something of a Rorschach test for people looking to blame one side or the other. We’re not weighing in on that here.
But as people are examining the Jan. 18 interaction, they also are digging into the backgrounds of the students and the school involved, as well as the background of the Native American protester, Nathan Phillips. One photo that surfaced is allegedly of four students from the school, Covington Catholic, at a high school basketball game painted in black. People interpreted that as blackface. Some people looked at the photo and saw a boy flashing a racist symbol while taunting a black player from the opposing team.
The text above a screenshot of the picture reads: "Here’s a 2015 photo of #CovingtonCatholic’s fine, upstanding student body clad in blackface at one of their basketball games. The kid harassing the black player is also flashing the white power sign."
The photo was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
We wanted to answer a couple of questions:
Is the photo authentic?
And can we understand the context of what it shows?
The photo is almost certainly authentic.
It comes from a November 2011 game between Covington and George Rogers Clark High School, during which Clark won 54-49. A Google image search of the Clark High School’s jerseys at the time matches the one the player is seen wearing in the photo. The photo is not from 2015 as the Twitter post says.
The year 2015 comes up in a discussion forum on a website for Kentucky high school sports, BluegrassPreps.com. In it, a post titled "Should The Colonel Crazies' Treatment Of Inbounders Have To Change?" (The Colonel Crazies is the nickname of Covington’s student cheering section.)
While the photo itself is not a hoax, the captions and descriptions of it circulating on Twitter and Facebook are at best incomplete.
In the conversation on the online forum, some users voiced concerns about how much heckling the "Crazies" take part in on the sidelines when opposing players are making inbound passes. Eventually, someone mentions blackface. But several other online commenters defended it, saying those are "blackout games" and pointing out that it’s not just the boy’s faces painted black, but their bodies as well. The students are also wearing black clothing.
The New York Times wrote about the "blackout game" trend in 2008. Basically, a team encourages fans to dress in a single color. Here's more from the story:
"In the mid-1980s, the N.H.L.’s Winnipeg Jets, now the Phoenix Coyotes, countered the "Sea of Red" by the rival Calgary Flames with a whiteout of their own. The arena looked like the inside of an igloo. Just last spring, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who play at an arena nicknamed the Igloo, tried to duplicate the effect.
"Hockey teams, in particular, love whiteouts. But basketball teams and even Penn State football have encouraged all-white dress codes at times, too.
"A blackout was the obvious counterpoint. The Los Angeles Kings of the N.H.L. tried it in the playoffs in 1998 and 2000. Black did not pop on the television screen the way white or bright colors did. The seats looked empty. The Kings were swept in both series anyway.
"The blackout slowly made its way outdoors. Whiteouts — or yellow-outs, or red-outs — are not always practical for sports played outdoors in cold weather, like football or baseball in the fall, since most fans do not wear jackets in those colors. But black never goes out of style.
"Colorado (against West Virginia), Vanderbilt (against South Carolina) and Purdue (against Penn State on Saturday) are among other high-profile programs that have promoted blackouts this year."
In the viral image, Covington's basketball team is playing against George Rogers Clark High School. Players from that team say the story being shared surrounding the photo is wrong.
"This picture is being completely taken out context," Adam Fatkin, a player on that George Rogers Clark team, tweeted on Jan. 21. "The player in the photo is my former teammate and like a brother to me. He lived with me for ~3 years. He is not being harassed because of the color of his skin."
Another player on the team, Blake Roberts, said on Twitter of the photo: "a basketball game I played in which not a single one of my teammates thought was racist."
Finally, some versions of the photo also include a claim that a player in the image is making a "white power symbol" (also known as the "okay" hand gesture, with the thumb and index pointer connected in a ring and the remaining fingers extended). It's unclear from the image the actual gesture the student is making. The sign is also used in a basketball context to signify a three-point basket, one that many professional basketball players also hold up.
A screenshot of a years-old photo claims to depict Covington Catholic students at a basketball game in black paint taunting a black player from the opposing team. That’s all correct.
But what is unproven is the accusation that race played a factor in the taunts and the color of paint the students used.
If the interaction between the Covington students and Nathan Phillips taught us anything, it’s that we need to be careful to present a full picture of the facts before reaching conclusions. The words and captions associated with this image often fail to do that.