Harlem Coach To Sue Board Of Education

By Janon Fisher
Updated: April 27, 2008

HARLEM, N.Y. — The city has booted Harlem’s only high-school football team, the Hellfighters, from its home in retaliation for the coach speaking out about a racial incident at a Staten Island game last year, according to a lawsuit.

Duke Fergerson, the coach who filed the suit, slammed the Department of Education and the Public School Athletic League, which oversees the program.

“It’s been the most hostile environment that I’ve been in in my life,” he said.

On Oct. 13, just before a game with McKee-Staten Island Technical School, the Harlem players noticed the words “Ya n—a’s SUCK from MSIT” scrawled on the visiting team’s bench.

Fergerson — who played in the NFL in the 1970s — claimed that after school and DOE officials refused to act on the vulgar graffiti, he alerted police and the media, according to the suit filed last week in Manhattan Supreme Court.

The Hellfighters are made up of students from schools without football programs. They practice in city parks and travel to other schools for all games. The team’s equipment was kept at its headquarters, at the Wadleigh School on 114th Street in Harlem.

Fergerson claims his call to the press resulted in Wadleigh’s principal at the time, Karen Watts, immediately barring him from the campus and evicting the team at the end of the season.

Without access to his mail, office or equipment, the coach said he’s unable to recruit players for next season.

The DOE claims the Staten Island incident was “entirely unrelated” to the expulsion.

“Three separate principals asked this coach to leave their schools,” said DOE spokeswoman Debra Wexler. “The DOE is currently working with several Harlem schools to find a home for a football team in the community.”

Fergerson claims in his suit that $2,000 in PSAL money for the Hellfighters has been withheld for the past three years, and that the league pressured a donor to redirect to the league another grant earmarked for the team.

The suit seeks a release of the funds and for school officials to allow the team to “compete on a level playing field.”