On Monday, America celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. If only Seminole (Fla.) High football coach Mike Cullison kept the lessons of King's life in mind this past fall, he might have a better chance at keeping the job he worked hard to earn and, by all accounts, deserved to remain in for years to come.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, Cullison has been on administrative leave since early November, when he reportedly used the "n-word" to refer to black students who were filing in for a pep rally. Cullison made the inflammatory comment to his longtime assistant coach, Ronald Moore, who happens to be African-American. Moore then told Seminole principal Mike Gaudreau about the comments, after which the school district launched a formal investigation of the event.
To his credit, Cullison has left no doubt about his own culpability for the comments. He owned up to them shortly after he made them, as soon as he was asked about the incident by Gaudreau. He said he was using street slang as a joke intended only for Moore. He has apologized and acknowledged that he never should have used the hateful term. Yet, despite that and the backing of a handful of influential and famous supporters, it seems unlikely that Cullison will be able to keep his job.
If Cullison does continue, he'll owe a major debt of gratitude to those supporters, one of whom is headed for the NFL's Pro Bowl. When Tennessee Titans superstar running back Chris Johnson was a Florida high schooler, he struggled to pass any classes at Olympia (Fla.) High. His coach was Cullison, who saw his talent and took him under his wing, tutoring him personally, pushing him on other coaches, even driving him to night school.
Eventually, Cullison convinced East Carolina to give Johnson a shot at a scholarship. The rest, as they say, is history.
In an e-mail backing Cullison, Johnson says his former coach is like "another father" to him. "When everybody turned their back on me, he's the only one who didn't. ... I promise you, he is not a racist."
It's likely that Johnson is right. Cullison has an impressive track record of mentoring struggling African-American teenagers, getting the best out of them and helping them earn college scholarships. He was hired at Jones (Fla.) High by an African-American athletic director, Ray Grier, who still backs him to the hilt.
Yet, at the end of the day, Cullison is a 52-year-old white man, a demographic which makes it even more unacceptable to use the "n-word" than any other social group, even if the deplorable term should clearly be avoided by all groups.
This could mean the end to Cullison's impressive Seminole career, a term which will live on as an important cautionary tale for high school coaches everywhere.
"What bothers me is this," Grier told the Sentinel. "As an African-American, you hear that word all the time and it is accepted when we are talking about one another. But if someone from another race says it, it's assassination time.
"Race is a delicate issue. Mike Cullison is not a racist. It was wrong what Mike said, but he didn't do it to be mean. He got caught up in the moment. He let his guard down. He was in a comfort zone and he felt like it was OK."