One of the first things I stress to my white friends and white coaching colleagues is the difficulty in understanding my feelings on race when you have not walked in my shoes. That does not mean you are not empathetic or upset with the events occurring in the world today.
Rob Lynch is one of my closest friends. We have very candid, raw discussions about race, drugs, socioeconomics and various other issues affecting eastern Kentucky. To his credit when discussing race, he has never said — “Hey, Jason, I know how you feel.” Not one time. Now, there have been plenty of times he’s said, “I don’t know how you do it,” or, “I don’t know how you go through it.” In my opinion, we need more listening in the world. Information is right at your fingertips, and we are so quick to hit the send button. I wish people would engage in more face-to-face, uncomfortable conversations. Let’s get representatives from the African American, Caucasian, Asian American and Latino communities in the same room, with the idea of developing an understanding of how it is natural for people of different racial backgrounds to see the world differently.
I’ve had the pleasure of coaching at four schools — Fairview, Raceland, Russell and Ashland. I had the opportunity to play at Ashland. Think about this for a second. We have all seen the term “white privilege” defined and discussed in various formats since the death of George Floyd. I want to be clear: In no way am I equating white privilege to what I will call “Tomcat privilege.” But on a much smaller scale, the point I want to stress is the same. As a black man and former athlete that found success at Anderson Gym, I am certain there are discriminating situations in Ashland I have never encountered, simply because I had the “privilege” to wear that uniform.
Over the last two weeks, friends have asked me this question: “Jason, how would you define white privilege?” My answer was simple — it is the privilege of not being profiled or stereotyped based on skin color. This brings me to my example of “Tomcat privilege.” I have been pulled over by law enforcement officers twice within the city limits since we have moved back to Ashland. Both instances occurred in residential neighborhoods. Once for an expired tag (the renewal tag was in my front seat) and once for speeding. During both experiences, the officers “knew” me by associating my name with Ashland Tomcat basketball. Both conversations with each officer were courteous and professional. I was not issued a ticket or citation and at no time did I fear for my safety. Thank yous and pleasantries were exchanged at the conclusion of each conversation. I have no idea whether I would have been treated differently if the gentlemen didn’t know I played and coached at Ashland. So, I have to ask myself this question: Was I privileged in this situation, and did that privilege result in a different outcome?
The stakeholders in our neighboring communities need more open dialogue to answer these questions. We are blessed with great local media talent and we must not allow the national media to define the Tri-State. I’ve had a couple of text messages recently from friends that do not reside in our area: “Aren’t you outraged? Aren’t you upset?” Obviously on a national level, I feel and understand the pain of watching another man of color die right in front of our eyes at the hands of law enforcement officers. Yes, of course I’m upset! But my home area has been fortunate not to experience the death and destruction we have seen on television related to the justice and equality marches for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. To my knowledge, our area protests have been peaceful, and more importantly, respectful of different opinions. And I refuse to paint all law enforcement officers with one brush. As an African American man, I would not hesitate to contact the white law enforcement officers I know in the Tri-State community if me or my family were in trouble.
My primary concern? What effects are today’s events having on our children. Magic Johnson is my favorite basketball player. I listened to part of an interview he gave on Tuesday night, where he discussed the type of conversation an African American father must have with his sons if they are pulled over by law enforcement. My wife can tell you, we’ve had those same candid conversations with our 13-year old son, LaBryant. The substance of those conversations is real and I stress to him these points: “The world is not fair. Yes, you are a biracial child, but guess what, people will see you as a young African American male.” My mother and father were very honest with me during my upbringing about what challenges to expect growing up as an African American man. If you know David Strader, then you know this, race was never allowed to be used as an excuse for not accomplishing the goals you wished to achieve in life. My parents never lied to me about race. The message was simple: “You have to be better in the classroom, on the court and in the community.” This is the world we live in.”
My mother worked at Ashland Oil for 40-plus years. My father worked at the refinery for 35-plus years. I can tell you this without any hesitation: my parents never walked through the doors on Mason Street and told us, “My employer is treating me different because of the color of my skin.” That never happened. Now, I am not naïve enough to think they did not experience some level of discrimination at their workplace over a combined 75-plus years in a workplace with very few minorities, but the message in our house was always clear and consistent: “We do not make excuses; we deal with it and keep fighting to find a way to overcome it.”
I have tried to prepare LaBryant in the same manner. I have told him there will be experiences that seem unfair, or even unjust. He has been warned that mom and dad will never allow him to make an excuse. The message is the same: “You must be smarter in the classroom, you must be better on the field and you must have a positive impact in your community.”
But what happens to the young African American male that does not have a father figure like David Strader in their life? This is one of the reasons why, as a society, we must be better. What does better look like? More listening, greater understanding and expanded empathy for people that may not have access to the sort of “privilege” we have discussed in this article.
Privilege can reveal itself in many forms. It should bother all Americans that people are comparing today’s events to the 1960s. What does that tell me? We have not made the progress necessary to see each other as just “an American.” I have always tried to use coaching as a platform to bring people together. In my opinion, sports is the “great melting pot.” As coaches, we all love the locker room. Why? Differences (racial, economic, social) evaporate and bonds are created. The brotherhood you must form to have success or chase a common goal has always been the biggest attraction to coaching for me. You still have differences, discussions and arguments, but you put them aside for the greater good or betterment of the team. It sure would be nice if our current society operated like that.
Rex Cooksey and Jeff Hall are the two individuals that got me into coaching. The relationship that I have with Jeff is one that you hope your child has with a coach: mentor, friend, an individual that took a 135-pound kid that very few people believed in and said, “You are going to be good, and I’m not settling for anything else.” When I started coaching at Fairview, I had the advantage of knowing Rex, so I felt very comfortable from Day 1. He, Jerry Davis and Joe Barker welcomed me with open arms and were great mentors. Derek Cooksey and I cut our teeth together on the middle school level. There were so many people that were great to me and my family during my time at Fairview. I absolutely love Westwood. Not a high African American population by any stretch, but my family and I were always treated with the utmost respect. I never experienced anything in terms of racism or discrimination during my tenure.
I literally knew no one when I took the assistant coaching position at Raceland. I received a phone call from Scott Floyd who asked me to come down and interview. He said, “Hey, saw the job you did at Fairview, I want to talk to you.” To this day, he is one of my closest friends, and on the surface, people would say, “My goodness, Jason Strader and Scott Floyd could not be any more different.” Scott is from the hollers of Greenup; I’m from Ashland. He’s white, I’m black. But I have always given him a ton of credit for taking a chance on me when he had absolutely no reason to. I had no ties to the community; I didn’t play at Raceland and my coaching résumé was pretty thin. He didn’t have a black player or a black coach on his staff. We sat down man-to-man and spoke in his office. He liked what I had to say and, more importantly, I liked the vision he outlined for the future of the program.
My father was hesitant and very skeptical of my decision. He said, “Are you sure about this, Jason?” I told my father, “I loved what this guy had to say and I think I can be an asset to the staff.” I always had great respect for Raceland football and I know how tight that community is. I thought maybe we could get the same type of excitement going in basketball. For the record, it was the best decision I ever made. I have never had as much fun coaching as I had during my time at Raceland. The coaching staff, the administration, the parents and the players all treated me with respect and took me in as one of their own. They allowed me to be myself. I never felt out of place and never felt more comfortable coaching. They made me and my family feel as though we had lived in Raceland our entire life. Like Fairview, it’s a very small African American population, but to this day, when I walk into Ram Stadium or the Palace to watch a game, people still smile, greet me, shake my hand or give me a hug.
That brings me to a situation I would like to share that occurred at Raceland. This experience is about a local head football coach standing up immediately for what is right. Two years ago, I am coaching LaBryant in a sixth-grade football game. We are playing at the Raceland JFL field where we had an incident that involved one of my African American players. There was an allegation that a racial slur was used on the field. I did not hear it myself, but it was heard by a few of our parents. We had not been home an hour and I get a call from Raceland High School head coach Mikey Salmons. Coach Salmons and I had stayed in contact throughout the years and I have great respect for him. I will never forget the substance of that phone call and specifically what he said: “Jason, I want to address something right now. It’s come to my attention that there was an incident in the sixth-grade game today, and I want to be clear, the buck stops with me.”
Look, I already loved the guy, but for him, it’s a sixth-grade game. Let’s be honest, nobody cares about sixth-grade JFL games. His next line was, “I want you to understand something — this stuff doesn’t happen in my house. It will be addressed immediately.”
The parent of my player received two phone calls that evening. The first call came from me alerting the parent the appropriate administrators had been contacted and action would be taken. The second telephone call came from coach Salmons. The “action” taken by coach Salmons is something I will never forget. But today it is so easy to focus on the “negative” stories instead of the positive ones.
I have never shared this story publicly with anyone. I thought now might be as good a time as any to remind people we do have strong leaders in our communities that know racial intolerance is unacceptable.
The opportunity to coach at Russell was an easy decision for me. My wife played for Mrs. Chaffin during our time at Ashland. I had known Mr. Horne since the fourth grade, and I had competed against coach Sparks during my playing days. People constantly asked me, “Why in the world would you go coach at Russell?” with the underlying tone being, “Why would a black man want to coach at Russell?” I had always been taught by my parents that you judge people by their character and how they treat you. I knew the character of the three administrators I would be working for. I did my due diligence on the staff and people I would be working with.
Race was never a subject Jane and I discussed when making the decision of whether to accept the job. Why? Bottom line, I trusted Mr. Horne, Mrs. Chaffin and Mr. Sparks. I also felt strongly those individuals knew what type of person they were getting as a head basketball coach. Every job has its challenges, no matter what race or ethnicity a coach is.
I had an experience at Russell that once again proved to me that our area has leaders that are willing to stand up and do the right thing. Jane and I were watching film between two local schools that we were scheduled to play during the year. There is a racial epithet on the film. A black kid was put in the game and an ignorant individual made a derogatory comment about that player. It hurt. I am sitting in my TV room trying to compose a scouting report and something like that is on the film. Even though I know these words are still used and uttered in public, it still hurt.
I did not report the incident to Mr. Sparks immediately. I wanted to meet with my staff and confirm they heard the same “language” and get their opinion on how we should handle the matter. Unbeknownst to me, Joe Bryan had watched the same film. Joe came to me and said, “Hey coach, I heard the derogatory comment on the game film.” He did not wait and reported the incident to Mr. Sparks. It would have been easy for Joe to be uncomfortable coming to me about a situation like that. He showed no hesitation; he knew right from wrong and acted on it appropriately. The action seems so simple, but yet the action was so powerful.
As my sons have gotten older, they have asked me if I have ever encountered blatant forms of racism on the basketball court. I share a story with them about a game in either 1989 or 1990 on the road versus Betsy Layne. One of the most prominent athletes in region history, Juan Thomas, was on our basketball team. We walk in the gymnasium and they have a poster or banner of Juan being lynched. Imagine being a 14-year-old kid, and you’re looking at this with your mind racing, thinking, “What in the world is this? Where are the administrators?”
Why did it happen? Simple — it was accepted behavior then. Now, I do not think anyone could imagine something like that happening today during a 15th or 16th Region basketball game. But who is to say it could not happen if we do not stand up for what is right? As I think about it, what would the outcome be today if that same incident happened? I’ve worked for three coaches at Ashland and I am 100% certain the reactions would not be pleasant. If I had to play a game of “What would this coach do in this situation?,” my guess would be coach Mays would turn right around and walk out of the gym, put the players on the bus, and then quietly give the opposing coach and administration a piece of his mind. Knowing coach Howell and coach Biggs, I believe they would have put the players back on the bus, and then proceeded to challenge the opposing coach in a Tough Man contest.
But how far have we really come over the last 30-40 years? As recently as 2013, when Dikembe Dixson was a member of the Ashland Tomcats, I heard derogatory comments from one local student section. Granted, we hold adults to a higher standard than kids, and in the heat of competition, sometimes people make inappropriate comments. Sitting on that bench was tough, because as a coach you cannot go in the stands and confront everybody. Plus, as one of the few African American assistant coaches in the 16th Region, I was always mindful of the fact that people would watch my reactions. I had to tell myself, “Jason, you can’t turn around and say something derogatory to that student, because you represent a school system, you represent your family, you represent your parents and your in-laws.” Believe me, it’s tough not to get up and respond. I remember speaking to Dixson and Demantie Thornton that night and telling them it’s wrong and it’s unfair and I hate that you have to endure that type of ignorance. No matter how intense the game or rivalry might be, disparaging remarks about another player’s race or ethnicity should never be tolerated.
I can sit here and tell you as an African American man, being called the N-word happens. It has happened to me while performing my day job duties at Ashland Credit Union, and it has happened to me during my coaching career. Am I one that whines and cries about it? No. Do I let my kids whine and cry about it? No. Does it hurt? Absolutely! It hurts because you want society to be better for the next generation. I hope my children never experience the indignity of being called the N-word. The only thing I can tell you is we have good people in our community who are willing to stand up for what is right. Do we still have issues? Yes, but I also believe we have a younger generation that is more engaged now and understands progress on racial issues can only be accomplished by every race working together.
In our country, I see more people going along than standing up, and I am hopeful the most recent movement will change that to where more people stand up than go along. In my heart, I genuinely believe there are more good people in this country than racist people, but the racist people are the loudest. We must not allow national leaders, city leaders, administrators or coaches to have racial biases and, more importantly, feel comfortable publicly voicing those biases.
As the wife of an African American man and mother of three biracial children, I have learned a few things about “covert” racism over the years. During Jason’s time at Ashland, both as a player and a coach, we knew there was an undercurrent of racism hidden beneath the surface. I heard the whispers in the stands during his playing days in the early 1990s and once again when he returned to coach there in 2012. And it is such a shame, after looking at the schools where Jason has coached — Raceland, Fairview, Russell and Ashland — of those four, the strongest racial undercurrent we experienced came at the school he played for. I remember being worried to death about how he would be accepted at the other three schools. If you know my husband, you understand that he feels he can win anybody over with his passion, work ethic and sincerity. He is a man that has always been comfortable in his own skin. I am so glad he has that quality. It has served him well, as throughout his career in financial services and his career in coaching, he is one of only a few African Americans in the board room or on the sideline in the Tri-State Area. As a Caucasian woman still trying to fully understand the struggles of the African American community today, I would hope people understand you can feel racism without hearing words. We must not only stand up to overt racism, we also cannot be silent when dealing with covert racism.
While coaching at Ashland, I was asked my stance on the Colin Kaepernick situation. Now, as an African American man, I know the question was code for, “Are you going to kneel during the National Anthem before games?” My response is the same today as it was in 2016. Colin Kaepernick taking a knee did not offend me and I was fully aware of why he took the action, to bring attention to an injustice that should not exist in our society. However, I have always been my own man. The National Anthem can have different meanings for different people. Like many people, I have men and women in my family who are serving or have served in uniform to protect our country. I stand with my right hand over my heart during the anthem to salute and thank them. But not for one second did I ever equate Kaepernick’s peaceful protest actions as disrespect to our flag or military personnel. What troubles me is a certain segment of the population could turn Kaepernick’s peaceful protest method into an “us versus them.” Surely an African American man can stand for the National Anthem and still support the fight against racial injustice. And surely, an African American man can engage in a peaceful protest to bring attention to injustice by kneeling for the National Anthem, and support the men and women who serve in our military? For four years, I have never understood how the two goals could be mutually exclusive.
When coach Lamont Taylor and I cross paths in the middle school ranks today, very seldom do we talk about the historical magnitude of Feb. 12, 2016. It was the first time in 16th Region basketball history that both head coaches were African American. As I reflect on that night, I remember our pre-game conversation at half-court. Neither one of us was comfortable in that type of spotlight. And although we both understood the importance of the evening, at the end of the day we were just two coaches looking to put our teams in position for a win. I remember getting home that night and reading text messages from friends, family and media members in the eastern part of the state. I remember turning to my wife and exhaling, finally acknowledging this contest was not “just another game”.” Since that time, Lamont and I have spoken about the night. Ultimately, we just wanted to be judged on how well our teams performed. I have never thought of myself as a pioneer, but somebody had to break that glass ceiling. But let us not forget, the administration at Russell had to be willing to give Jason Strader a chance. The administration at Fleming County had to be willing to give Lamont Taylor a chance. We have some strong, forward-thinking administrative leaders in our community.
Often, I am asked the question of whether we will see another African American head coach patrolling the sidelines in the 16th Region. Someone gave Lamont and me an opportunity to lead programs, so I think it will happen again. Who knows, perhaps in the future unity will smooth out racial undercurrents and the focus will simply be on who the best candidate is for the job.
Now, that is a world Jane and I want our children to be a part of.
JASON STRADER is the eighth-grade boys basketball coach at Ashland Middle School and vice president of operations for Ashland Credit Union. JANE STRADER is the medical director of Primary Care of King’s Daughters Medical Center and medical director of Kingsbrook Lifecare Center. Both are Ashland natives. Jason was the boys basketball coach at Russell from 2015-16, in which role he coached in the first varsity basketball game in the 16th Region matching two black head coaches in 2016.