St. John's fencing coach Boris Vaksman fired after saying 'Lincoln made a mistake' by freeing slaves

Jason Owens
·4 min read

St. John’s has fired assistant fencing coach Boris Vaksman after video surfaced of him making hateful statements about black people and saying that President Abraham Lincoln made a mistake when he freed slaves.

The New York Daily News’ Bradford Davis reports that Vaksman made the remarks during a youth coaching session with the Fencers Club, an elite Manhattan club that serves as a training ground for college and Olympic fencers.

The video was first posted publicly by Ibtihaj Muhammad, a bronze medalist at the 2016 Olympics and the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab during Olympic competition. The recording came from a Zoom call on June 3, according to the report.

‘They steal, they kill’

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“Because the most trouble coming from where? … from black people,” Vaksman said. “Because they don’t want to work, they steal, they kill, they drugs, everything comes from them. The majority, the majority.

“I think, uhh, what’s his name — Lincoln made a mistake.”

Vaksman then laughed as the video faded to black.

‘This is what racism looks like’

Muhammad wrote in her Instagram post that statements like Vaksman’s help normalize racism.

“This is what racism looks like in fencing, a smaller piece of a larger puzzle,” Muhammad wrote. “This video is a reminder that coaches and teachers, those people entrusted with building us, educating us, and protecting us, too often perpetuate the discriminatory treatment and behaviors that normalize racism.”

Boris Vaksman, left, lost his job after saying that black people steal, kill and do drugs. (Doug Stroud/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Boris Vaksman, left, lost his job after saying that black people steal, kill and do drugs. (Doug Stroud/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Vaksman a pillar of the fencing community

According to his Fencer’s Club bio, Vaksman moved to the United States in 1989 from Ukraine, where he won four national championships, four Soviet Union championships and 56 medals in fencing. He eventually served as the coach of the U.S. Junior National Team from 2005-09 and was hired at St. John’s in 2006.

He coached multiple individual national champions at St. John’s and helped lead the team to four top-three finishes at NCAA championships. His St. John’s bio has been deleted.

Responses to Vaksman’s comments

St. John’s fired Vaksman on Wednesday after the video surfaced.

“As soon as the recording was brought to our attention the matter was immediately investigated and the individual no longer works at the university,” St. John’s Athletic Director Michael Cragg wrote in a statement. “The racist comments expressed are completely unacceptable and a rejection of everything for which the university stands.”

The Daily News obtained an email from the Fencers club noting the suspension of a “long-time valued coach” that suggested Vaksman could eventually be reinstated.

“As we will simply not tolerate inappropriate behavior in our community, today we suspended a long-time valued coach of Fencers Club as their behavior and words were completely unacceptable and inconsistent with our community's values,” the email reads.

“Only if the terms of suspension, which includes sensitivity training, are adhered to, will the suspension be satisfied. Upon return, they are also required to perform community service.”

USA Fencing also acknowledged the video in an Instagram post Wednesday night.

“Today, USA Fencing became aware of an audio recording of a fencing coach that included virulently racist comments targeting the Black community,” the statement reads. “We are disgusted by these statements, which are racist, offensive and have no place in the USA Fencing community or in society as a whole.

“USA Fencing stands with our black athletes and all underrepresented minorities within the fencing family and will conduct an immediate investigation. We will be implementing steps to protect our athletes and all members who may be victimized, marginalized or otherwise injured by such conduct.”

Vaksman has not publicly responded to the backlash from the video or his firing.

St. John’s head fencing coach Yury Gelman has not publicly responded either, but addressed the incident in an email with members of the team that the Daily News acquired.

“I am writing to inform you that a situation with Coach Vaksman was recently brought to our attention,” Gelman wrote. “The university immediately reviewed the matter and he will no longer be working with our team. As current members of the fencing program, I wanted you to be the first to know and assure you I am in full support of this decision.”

St. John’s was ranked No. 4 in the nation before the fencing season was shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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