Masterman’s Soccer Controversy and Racism in the PIAA

Masterman soccer players, from left: Nery Tlapaya, Owen Kingsley | Picture courtesy of Vahn Mahlab
Masterman soccer players, from left: Nery Tlapaya, Owen Kingsley | Picture courtesy of Vahn Mahlab

On November 8th 2022, Masterman’s Boys Soccer played Northwestern Lehigh High School in New Tripoli, PA, in the first round of the 2022 2A PIAA Soccer Championships. This was different from a normal match, though. Throughout the game, spectators from Northwestern Lehigh repeatedly yelled racially insensitive comments at Masterman’s players. Many of the comments were specifically directed at Masterman’s goalkeeper, Nery Tlapaya, who was a freshman at the time.

Masterman's parents initially approached Lehigh’s spectators, asking them to stop, but they were told the taunting was just “boys being boys.” Eventually, the harassment reached a  point that Masterman’s coach, Tyler Weiss, felt it needed to be officially addressed. “I kept telling the referees that I could hear it and that they should stop the game and make an announcement,” said Weiss. He also brought up the issue with the athletic director from Northwestern Lehigh. Weiss was told in response to his complaints that the situation had been dealt with, but still, the harassment continued.

Towards the end of the game—after a controversial red card leading to the ejection of one of Masterman’s players—Weiss describes " getting very angry and having a passionate reaction. He recalls being frustrated that the situation with the spectators was not properly dealt with and that one of his players was being punished for his insistence that more be done by the officials to combat the verbal abuse from the stands.

The harassment did not end with the final whistle that signaled a 4-0 loss for Masterman. Tlapaya recalls being called a racial slur by a Northwestern Lehigh fan as he was heading towards the bus. Following a difficult day in New Tripoli, Masterman’s team headed back to Philadelphia and set their sights on the next season. 

However, the long-lasting ramifications of this game would not fully come to light until the following spring. After the game, Weiss had filled out an incident report with Masterman’s administration, which they sent off to the School District, believing that the incident was behind them.

But in Spring 2023, Dr. James Lynch, the Executive Director of the Athletics at the School District of Philadelphia, informed Weiss that the case—that Weiss and Masterman's administration believed had been dealt with—was, in fact, still open and Weiss was under investigation for his behavior towards the referees at the state tournament game.

When summer preseason began, Weiss began running practices as usual, but after the third practice, he was informed that he would no longer be able to serve as Masterman’s soccer coach. This was not, however, due to the incident at the game against Northwestern Lehigh, but was rather because Masterman had been told that they needed to hire someone else who was an employee of the District. This new “coach” had no prior soccer experience and was hired because of District rules that stated that the District employees have priority for positions over non-district employees and Weiss does not work in the District outside of his involvement with Masterman.

This new coach had a negative impact on team morale, according to players. “Coach Tyler was an integral part of the program, especially in his ability to convey his technical knowledge to the players. He would always bring his cleats and practice with us and he tried to connect with us on a personal level, he would talk to us like people with opinions and values which the team really benefited from,” says Lachlan Pepersack, one of the team’s captains. Without Weiss, Masterman was 1-5 in the first few weeks of the season. 

Eventually, Masterman parents found a loophole which would allow Weiss to volunteer through Masterman, which in turn would allow him to coach again. However, at the end of September, the district discovered that Weiss had returned to the team, albeit in an unpaid position, and Lynch informed Weiss that he was not allowed to be on the bench.

After the news was revealed, Weiss and the Masterman administration contacted Assistant Superintendent Richard Gordon. He ruled that Weiss could in fact rejoin the team. With his return, Masterman went from fearing relegation to making the playoffs. At this point, Weiss and the team believed the worst was behind them but they soon learned that the investigation into Weiss that began the previous fall had been reopened and Weiss was officially suspended. 

The team learned of this thirty minutes before they were slated to play Franklin Towne Charter in the Public League Quarterfinals. The most recent suspension was for two games but still, Masterman parents and administration did not understand why the suspension was levied at such a critical moment in Masterman’s season. In search of answers, Masterman parents once again reached out to Assistant Superintendent Gordon, who revealed there were a number of irregularities regarding the investigation into Weiss.

First of all, Weiss had never received official documentation, despite having been under investigation for 11 months. Lynch’s response was that no documentation had been needed. The documentation Weiss was eventually provided stated that while Weiss had claimed that there was racial harassment, the investigation did not deem this to be true.

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They even stated that they had talked to Tlapaya’s parents, who had agreed that there had been no incidents of racism at the game. However, Tlapaya’s parents were not at the game and his mother does not speak English, so there is no way they could have been contacted, according to Tlapaya. 

Ultimately, Masterman was able to upset Franklin Towne 1-0. Players have cited Weiss’s suspension just moments before the game as motivation to play arguably their best game of the season. “It was kind of a revenge game–a statement. People wanted Masterman to lose, to be over. The end of this game would be a statement to everyone who did not believe in us,” says Pepersack. While the team lost to Northeast in the semifinals, they still qualified for the state tournament.

In addition to the sudden suspension before the game against Franklin Towne, Weiss was informed by Dr. Robert Lombardi, the Executive Director of the PIAA, that there were a number of assignments he needed to complete in order to be cleared from the investigation, including an apology letter to the athletic director at Northwestern Lehigh, whom he had reportedly harassed in his attempt to stop the assault from Lehigh’s spectators.

Weiss recalls writing an apology stating he was “sorry for misbehaving, but [that] he misbehaved because there was a racial incident.” That apology was not accepted. So, Weiss had to write another apology letter without mentioning any incident of racism. “It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” says Weiss. He agreed to write this second apology only because he was worried that Masterman would be punished for an incident that was not their fault, specifically by not being allowed to participate in PIAA events or the state tournament.

The second apology was accepted, and Weiss received a response from the athletic director stating his apology was accepted on behalf of his entire school, including, of course, the students who instigated the racism. While Weiss felt he had to apologize to protect Masterman students from punishments that they did not deserve, Masterman’s soccer captains stated that the team, and by extension the rest of the student body, understand that the actions of Lehigh’s students are not acceptable and racism, in all of its forms, must be condemned. 

While Masterman is far from the most diverse school in the Philadelphia school district, it is more diverse than most of the schools playing in the state tournament. For example, while Masterman has a racial minority enrollment rate of 58.9%, Northwestern Lehigh’s is 9.7%. Following the incident at the state game, the PIAA essentially stated the issue at the game was Weiss’s behavior, not the incidents of racism that preceded it.

Furthermore, in their investigation of the issue, they claimed to have talked to Tlapaya’s parents although Tlapaya assured this was not the case. Furthermore, Northwestern Lehigh added to the narrative when their head coach stated ahead of this year’s state tournament that “District 12 teams are a little bit notorious for [physical play] and we experienced that last year against Masterman [High School], so we kind of talked about it with the boys and reminded them that if it gets chippy, if it gets controversial and they lose their heads, we can’t lose ours.”

This continues to build on the idea that there was no racial harassment from spectators but rather the incident was entirely isolated to Masterman’s actions. Furthermore, Weiss was informed by the PIAA that he will be held accountable for the offenses of his players in future seasons. Meaning, that if one of his players is given a yellow or red card, he would suffer consequences for it such as a suspension from games. This has outraged the Masterman community because this is not a punishment that is described anywhere in the PIAA rulebook and parents believe that it was invented to specifically punish Weiss.

Parents have written letters to Dr. Lombardi and the PIAA outlining what really happened at the state game last fall and expressing their discontent with how the situation has been handled. “The PIAA was very dismissive…We had been writing to Dr. Lombardi as parents demanding explanations for what he had done to Tyler. No one had ever asked a single Masterman parent about it or any of the players, they just took Northwestern Lehigh’s Athletic Director’s word for it and that was it.” says one Masterman parent. 

Masterman’s situation is representative of a larger issue within the PIAA. There have been multiple incidents of racism when a more racially diverse school plays a significantly less diverse one. What is even more telling is the lack of due diligence by the PIAA to ensure that these incidents do not continue to happen.

For instance, after Westinghouse High School (98.4% minority enrollment) played Southern Columbia (6.9% minority enrollment) in December 2022 for the state football title, Southern Columbia students made a TikTok that included players saying a racial slur. Additionally, at a pep rally before the game, Southern Columbia students held posters with racially insensitive slogans. While the PIAA launched an investigation into the incident, there have not been any reported repercussions for Southern Columbia.

Also, in December 2022, when players from Cheltenham High School (72% minority enrollment rate) traveled to Upper Moreland (30% minority enrollment rate) for a basketball game, they discovered a racial slur written in the locker room. When State Senator Art Haywood inquired to the PIAA what was being done about the incident, he was told that the investigation and subsequent consequences would be left to the discretion of the Cheltenham and the Upper Moreland Districts.

In response to this, Haywood stated that “League standards have to come from league; the league is managed by PIAA… trying to punt it to the teams does nothing to enforce league standards, and … it’s wholly unacceptable and disgraceful that they would put young people in a position where this could reoccur”. 

The PIAA, in their rulebook, mentions racism one time, when describing examples of unsportsman-like conduct. “A school, through one or more of its Teams, Coaches, student-athletes and/or supporters, engages in racist, sexist, ethnic and/or religious intimidation, threats, chants and/or attacks.”

However, the above events provide explicit examples of the PIAA’s failure to enforce this policy which in turn creates a bad environment for student athletes, who the PIAA is supposed to protect. There is actually a separate body from the PIAA, the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee (PAOC) that is supposed to oversee the actions of the PIAA in order to ensure that they do not have complete control over all high school sporting events across the state.

However, it is unclear if the PAOC had any involvement with the handling of the aforementioned events. It appears that the PAOC largely leaves important decisions to the discretion of the PIAA which in turn leaves these important decisions up to the discretion of the individual schools. This creates a practice of shrugging off responsibility and does not foster a safe and inclusive environment for all students to pursue athletics in Pennsylvania. The incident that occurred at Masterman is one of many incidents that continue to occur and demonstrate a flawed system that requires improvement on many levels in order to create a better safer future for all communities. 


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