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Norfolk State coach says ISU fans have history of racist remarks

A basketball coach in a news conference
Norfolk State University basketball coach Robert Jones addresses reporters Monday, Dec. 11, 2023.
Updated: December 12, 2023 at 4:13 PM CST
This story has been updated to add comments from ISU coach Ryan Pedon made Monday evening.

Norfolk State men's basketball coach Robert Jones said during a media availability Monday that society has come a long way over the decades, but there is still a small pocket of people in the country where racism exists.

Jones was responding to questions about the incident in which a spectator at Horton Field House allegedly yelled a racist slur at a Norfolk State player during its game Saturday against Illinois State. Jones said similar incidents have happened only two other times during his roughly 350-game coaching tenure at Norfolk State, and one of those was in Bloomington-Normal.

“The thing people don’t know is this happened at Illinois State. Honestly, I would say I messed up even playing the game,” said Jones.

He said he had recalled a similar incident at ISU in 2011 or 2012. He did not remember it until former players from that team texted him about the Saturday win and thanked him for how he handled the controversy.

“This is 11 years later that some stuff is still happening which shouldn’t be happening,” said Jones. "So, I shouldn’t have taken the game ... Getting that reminder really put a damper a little bit on the win because I shouldn’t have played this game.”

Online records show Norfolk State played at Illinois State on Dec. 18, 2011. Jones was an assistant coach at NSU at the time.

Jones also rebuffed any potential apology from ISU coach Ryan Pedon, saying he has no interest in talking with Pedon.

“You had four opportunities to make it right in person. So, let’s not make it right when six million people have seen the video now that you get all types of flack from the media and the public,” said Jones during his talk with reporters.

Jones said Pedon called him Sunday morning and Jones decided not to answer.

“You had a chance to make it right when I confronted you at half court. You said you didn’t hear me. You had a chance to make it right in the handshake line. He did say he didn’t hear what I was saying. What I said to him was why did you say you don’t care if you didn’t hear what I said? What did you think I said? He didn’t say anything.

"That’s the second time he had a chance to make it right. Third time, after digesting what I said, as you walk back to the locker room through the tunnel, as a reputable coach you would say dang that happened, let me walk around to the locker room and say I owe an apology on behalf of Illinois State. That’s not how we conduct ourselves and we are sorry to you guys. And the fourth time he had a chance to make it right was in the press conference. And he went into he’s Italian and he’s fiery and things like that,” said Jones.

Jones clarified that neither Pedon nor the ISU basketball program did anything to him or his team. Jones said he did not like Pedon’s reaction to what Jones told him and will probably never talk with Pedon.

Pedon said in a message posted on social media Sunday "he absolutely did not hear what (Jones) was saying to me."

To those who have publicly doubted whether the slur took place, and who have said Norfolk State made it up, Jones said three people did not get kicked out of the game for no reason.

“What do we have to make excuses for, we were winning the whole game,” said Jones. "A kid is not going to make this stuff up. I’m not making this up for clicks or anything like that. I have enough followers. ... So that’s probably the most disappointing part.”

He said he does not think the entire Illinois State fan base is like that and that many people after the game were very complimentary to his team.

He said most of the messages he has received from around the country have been overwhelmingly positive.

He said game officials told them the reason for the ejections at the time. He said one game official heard the slur and one other Norfolk State player heard it. He said after the incident, the effect of an African American official changed.

“His whole demeanor changed,” said Jones. "It put a damper on him, too. On the way out, he told me he’s going to let the whole conference know exactly what happened.”

Pedon's response

During a coach’s show Monday evening, Pedon offered remarks to clarify his perspective and offer accountability. Pedon told listeners his in-game response was not what it should have been. If he had a better context of the situation, Pedon said, his response would have been a "polar opposite" of what happened.

Ryan Pedon speaking at news conference
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
ISU men's basketball coach Ryan Pedon.

“There's no place for racism in any aspect of life. No one would be accepting of any sort of racial insensitivity whatsoever. Not me. Not my staff. Not our program. Not Illinois State University, period. And I feel very, very strongly about saying that,” said Pedon.

Pedon said he applauded the way coach Robert Jones responded, and Pedon has made it clear to his team he would react in the same way defending his players as Jones did if Pedon was faced with that situation.

“Lastly, my response in the postgame. I was directed to handle the postgame press conference in a certain way. And I did. I woke up the next morning, and I felt like I should have most definitely addressed the situation. And I didn't do that. And that's on me. That's on me. I take full responsibility for that, because I could have addressed the situation and given some context to my response,” said Pedon.

He said he wanted to offer clarity and to make his moral compass clear to others. He said he takes such issues seriously and does not play around with them in the program or in life. Pedon said he takes full responsibility for his responses Saturday night.

“I hope that we can all grow and learn from this situation. I'm a human and I'm being as accountable as I possibly can,” said Pedon.

ISU investigation

ISU has promised a thorough investigation. A spokesperson on Monday did not specify a timeline but did lay out procedural steps of a comprehensive review by Redbird Athletics and ISU staff of the Dec. 9 incident.

“The process will begin with reviewing game footage, and speaking with those who were present (coaches, student-athletes, game officials, staff on the court and sidelines, and spectators). Athletics and University staff will work with colleagues at Norfolk State University to keep them apprised of the progress of the review,” said the statement.

The Missouri Valley Conference told WGLT all media inquiries about the incident should be directed to ISU.

“It should be a lesson to fans that you can’t say just anything,” said Jones.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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