This blog may seem a little disjointed and for good reason. I am still in a state of shock and can’t believe what I went through and witnessed last night. One of the only things worse than seeing a major injustice is the feeling of utter helplessness in knowing there is nothing you can do about it.
My dad, as some of you know, is a former boxer and Golden Gloves champion. He started boxing as a young teen and had his last fight in 1976. He has been a boxing coach ever since and all said has about 50 years experience in the arena. He has a real love for the sport, knows what it taught him in life, and when you see him working with kids you can tell how much he loves sharing that passion. Dad is a father figure to a lot of guys who grew up in less-than-stable households and because Dad let them know they can do anything they want if they put their mind to it, they grew up to achieve successes they may never have attained otherwise: Upstanding fathers and husbands. Lawyers with integrity. Exemplary political figures. Even a NASA engineer.
So last night when Dad and a fighter of his experienced an incredible amount of racism and prejudice while trying to be involved in a sport that has done so much to improve not only his life, but the lives of others, it really rocked his world. It was hard to watch.
Dad has been training a young female boxer named Jessica for a couple of years. Even before I moved back into the area I felt like I knew her whole history because many times when we would talk on the phone Dad would tell me about her and, not only was she a great athlete, but she was a great kid with a big heart. When I moved back into town last year and went down to the club for a few months to train I got to meet Jess and Dad was right. She’s a great fighter, a really hard worker, and…well…just a good person. She’s the kind of kid (I say kid, but she’s a freshman in college) with such a sweet disposition you automatically want to take her under your wing and protect her like she was your little sister.
She works harder and is more dedicated than anyone, male or female, I’ve seen in a long time. Dad is hoping to get her accepted into the training for the female Olympic boxing team this summer. The hard thing about it, though, is the lack of female boxers in the area. They have a really hard time finding matches for her. It’s really hard for Jess because she loves the sport so much yet is often met with frustration when she travels out of town to a fight only to find out her opponent didn’t show up or had to back out for some other reason. It’s not unlike that feeling of disappointment the Griswolds felt when their family drove across country to go to the Wally World theme park only to find out it was closed.
Dad got a call from a boxing guy in Michigan a few weeks ago who said he had someone who would box Jessica at an amateur show just outside Detroit. Dad and Jess were both very excited about it and when Dad asked if he could borrow my video camera to tape the fight for Jess I volunteered to go along and film. I had never seen Jess fight in an actual bout before and was excited to go along.
On the three-hour drive up there you could sense how excited Jess was. It’d been almost a year since she had a fight and she was chomping at the bit. When you haven’t done something you love for so long, and then get an opportunity to do it again, the adrenaline rush leading up to the actual event is exhilarating and that’s definitely where Jess was at.
The fight was being held at the GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB in ROCHESTER, MICHIGAN. Let’s all remember that name. The GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB. Now you know where to send your letters.
We got there and were greeted by a friendly guy at the door, probably a high school or college student, and inside were two friendly girls about the same age who pointed us in the right direction. We got Jess weighed in and had about an hour and a half to spare. We asked what time we needed to be back as we wanted to go and grab a bite to eat and left to get some sustenance.
Upon returning to the GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB we saw the parking lot was filled. They had signs up in the lobby advertising “Fight Night!” that included “amateur boxing, fine dining, and fine cigars.” Tickets to this event, by the way, were $80 apiece. This is an amateur fight. None of the boxers or boxing clubs represented were getting paid. They were all there just to participate in a sport they loved. In fact, the only people who were probably getting any money were the people who brought the boxing ring. So the GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB really got themselves a deal, to say the least.
Upon our return we met Rene, the guy who was promoting and putting together the fight. He seemed like a really nice guy despite looking a little frazzled. He showed us the waiting area, which was a small room off the main lobby. And when I say a small room, that’s exactly what it is. Dad and Jess went down the hall so Jess could see the doctor for her pre-fight physical and I stayed behind with our stuff. I sort of drifted toward the wall in the lobby to be out of the way and Rene told me that GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB wanted everyone inside the room; no one could be in the lobby. I didn’t think anything of it, as I understood it to be a holding room for fighters and their coaches.
Inside the approximately 12′ x 17′ room were maybe 10 or 12 chairs and 50-60 people. There were boxers and coaches, yes, and there were also people who had come to watch their families fight, mostly wives and children. It was a unique atmosphere to say the least only because there were a lot of people in a very small room, a lot of boxers, but it was pretty quiet. Everyone was being very respectful of their surroundings, this wasn’t a sweaty gym somewhere, and I was impressed to say the least.
One of the two double doors leading into the room was standing open and a few minutes after being in there a woman came to the room, glared at everyone inside and said (direct quote here), “You need to keep this door closed. We don’t want our members to see you.” Then she shut the door as if we were a bunch of kids who had been sent to our rooms and had been caught sneaking out. No, scratch that…she shut the door more like we were a bunch of people who weren’t white and had trespassed onto the GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB property.
You would think that when you live in a community so close to Detroit and want to have a boxing show, you’re going to expect a few brown people to walk through your door. Of the people in the room, it was probably 10% white, 30% hispanic, and 60% black.
No one said anything. There was no call to riot, no questioning or backtalk. We all just accepted that those were the rules, weird as they may seem, and everyone went back to what they were doing, which was either talking quietly or putting on hand wraps. A few people came up to me, introduced themselves, and I got to meet some really nice folks. That’s one thing about the boxing community. As violent as some people think it is as a sport, the people involved in it are some of the friendliest, most humble, and most polite people you’ll ever meet.
Soon some people came in from out in the lobby, more than likely returning from seeing the doctor. The doors of the room are the kind that stay propped open automatically and have to be pulled shut and after a few minutes the door to the room was found open again. Not because someone defiantly opened the door, but because people were going in and out of it on their way to and from their physicals.
From outside I heard the Dragon Lady yelling at someone. “You have to get in the room!” There was a pause as whoever she was yelling at responded, but they were using a hushed tone and I couldn’t hear what was said. Again the lady yelled, “Just get in the room!”
Soon after a young black man came into the room. He walked over to his friends and said “Did you hear her yell at me? I told her I was just coming back from the bathroom and she yelled at me to get back in the room.” This guy didn’t have any attitude at all in his voice, he was just talking to his friends like he was telling them what he had for breakfast.
I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing. You always hear about discrimination at country clubs but I never really gave it much thought. I actually figured it was just people blowing things out of proportion and here I was, seeing it for myself.
A few minutes later the Dragon Lady returned to the room and yelled at no one, “I need you to keep this door closed! We don’t want our members to see you people!” I remember finding it ironic that everyone talked to her in polite and hushed tones as if they were in a library, and she talked by yelling. And she worked for the GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB. Shouldn’t she be the polite one and the rest of us riff-raff be the ones who are loud and obnoxious?
Rene then entered the room and shut the door. He announced that no one was allowed to go in and watch the fights except for the fighters themselves and the coaches. No wives. No children. They were all to stay in the room. I could see the frustration on Rene’s face as he said this; I’ve never gone to a boxing show where this has been the case. He explained this wasn’t the rules of the boxing association but something the GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB had just told him. He also expressed this was the last time he would be working with the GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB in ROCHESTER, MICHIGAN.
You can imagine the disappointment in the room upon hearing this news. Not only could their wives and children not stand in the back of the event room and watch them fight, they had to stay in this cramped little space during the entire course of events. But no one said anything. No backtalk. No sass. No “are you kidding me’s.” I think everyone was slowly starting to accept that it was what it was.
Dad and Jess finally returned from the doctor and as Dad started to wrap Jess’s hands and I filled him in on what had been going on. A few minutes before the fights were to begin Rene stepped in the room and called Dad’s name. This is it! I thought to myself, Here we go! Then Rene said he wanted to talk to Dad and Jess. I waited back in the room.
A few minutes later Dad came in and said, “There’s no fight.” Everyone in the room froze and looked at Dad. I hadn’t seen Dad ever look so defeated before in my life.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They aren’t going to let Jess fight because they said it would offend their members.”
I said it without even thinking. “Would it offend their members if I went out there and punched them in the neck?”
Dad grabbed his boxing duffel bag and coat. “They’re not letting the girls fight because they said “They’re girls.””
Dad said, “They won’t even let us stay and watch the fights. We have to leave.”
“Wow,” I said, “I’ve never been kicked out of a country club before.”
You could feel the disbelief and shock as it settled on everyone in the room. Jess came in the room and I could see she was trying hard not to cry. One of the other coaches said, “If they’re not letting your girl fight, then none of my guys are fighting.”
Another coach agreed. “They’ve treated everyone here really disrespectfully, and that’s not right. If they’re not going to let everyone fight, then none of my guys are fighting either.” Boxers around the room began nodding their heads in silent agreement.
These things weren’t said in a dramatic, loud, call-to-arms tone of voice. Despite what everyone had gone through and how everyone had been treated, everyone was still talking quietly and appropriately. I couldn’t get over how impressed I was.
And what really impressed me was Rene’s response. I expected, “Now, now, now, let’s not get out of hand here, there’s still going to be a show.” Instead, Rene simply stated, “I know. If you want to leave, you can leave. Maybe we should all leave. I’ll never work with these people again.”
Dad, Jess, and I left but not before I caught a glimpse of a few guys taking off their wraps and shoes. I also remember seeing the young guy and girls who greeted us at the Country Club when we first arrived. They were still smiling, but their smiles were no longer genuine, as if they just realized exactly where they were working.
I wanted to stay behind to see what happened, to see how many people actually left, all three of us did, but we had a three-hour drive ahead of us and Dad wanted to get on the road.
In the truck I asked Dad what happened when he was called out of the room. Rene told Dad They’re not going to let any girls fight. They said it would offend their members. Dad told me, “I couldn’t believe he actually said that.It’s so wrong.”
While they were in the lobby talking to Rene one of the boxers came from the bathroom in his boxing trunks and shoes with no shirt on…like what boxers wear. A man (the Dragon Lady’s counterpart, I assume) yelled at the kid to “Get in the room! This is a family environment! There are children here!” (I pointed out to Dad that the only children I saw in the place were the kids of the boxers they had cooped up in the waiting room.)
Dad said he’d never seen Jess so angry before. Jess asked the man if he was the one that said she couldn’t fight. The man said he was. Jess asked why and Dad said this guy got a look on his face like no woman had ever dared to ask him that question before. And that’s probably true.
He told Jess, “Because you people won’t keep that door closed, you’re coming in and out, and it’s chaos in here!”
“That’s not my fault. Don’t punish the girls for that.”
The man walked up to Jess, pointed his finger in her face, and said, “It IS your fault.”
“Why won’t you let us box?” Jess pleaded again and his answer was cut and dry.
“Because you’re girls.”
He turned and stormed away and Jess called out after him, “Haven’t you ever heard of women’s boxing?”
I don’t know what happened after we left the GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB. In my mind I see all of the boxers refusing to stand for it and walking out. Their employees, offended by the bias they have observed, quit their jobs. The precious “members”, who paid 80 bucks a ticket, demand their money back and the GREAT OAKS COUNTRY CLUB takes a big loss.
In reality, that’s probably not what happened. I’m sure some of the boxers stayed behind. I’m sure there were some fights. Maybe not as many as they had planned on, but the people got their show and smoked their cigars. And I’m also pretty sure none of the members had any idea any of this occurred.
It’s all about the Members, isn’t it? Protect the members.
Dad was in a state of shock during the drive home. It broke my heart. And when I saw Jess in tears I could feel my heart bleed. All she could say over and over again was “I’ve never been told I couldn’t do something because I was a girl.” I told her it wasn’t fair and they weren’t right. It wasn’t. And they weren’t.
I’m not naive. I’ve been around the block a time or two. I know there is injustice in the world, much of it unprovoked and uncalled for. And I guess I’ve just learned to put up with it. But the first time someone is exposed to it, the first time they realize some stereotypes are true…to actually witness the moment when someone’s innocence is shattered…that hurts like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
Jess’s voice trembled as she said it. “I hope that guy doesn’t have any daughters. If he does, I feel really bad for them.”
Dad and I did, too.