Photo: Tony Nimmons at the 2012 U.S.
Photo: Clive Brunskill (Getty)

Tony Nimmons, a black chair umpire, is suing the U.S. Tennis Association for racial discrimination and is seeking reinstatement to his USTA position as well as compensatory damages, according to a complaint filed Friday in federal court for the Eastern District of New York. The lawsuit was filed after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued the rare finding, in June 2017, that there was “reasonable cause to believe” the USTA had discriminated and retaliated against Nimmons. In January of this year, the EEOC issued a “right to sue” on the basis of the claims.

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Nimmons, who as Deadspin reported last year, is a certified silver-badge umpire with experience working major tournaments around the world, including all four grand slams, with the USTA’s own website calling him “one of the best in the sport,” said he dealt with racist abuse and derogatory language while he was at the USTA, and faced retaliation when he brought his complaints to his superiors. From the lawsuit:

During the 2013 US Open in New York City, a Caucasian USTA umpire, said, “Hey Tony, if you were a hungry monkey and I told you there was a watermelon in the tree – go get it! How would you feel?”

At a USTA Challenger event in Dallas, Texas in 2012, a Caucasian umpire yelled, “Tony, you should go back to the ghetto!” This same Caucasian umpire yelled, “Run nigger, Run!” while watching a track meet. Unfortunately, even after so many complaints of racism, Plaintiff personally heard his manager, Bruce Littrell, say of the same Caucasian umpire, that he, “is a good person and he deserves to be at the US Open.”

At a USTA Challenger in Sacramento, CA in 2010, a Caucasian player yelled, “Schwarze scheisse!”, which means “Black S*it” in German. The USTA generally refuses to remove, or even reprimand, racist players or officials. After each one of these incidents and on numerous other occasions, Plaintiff filed complaints.

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The lawsuit also alleges that Nimmons, who was hired as a full-time employee in 2009 to promote diversity at the USTA—three years after the New York Attorney General’s Office concluded that the organization had failed to adhere to state labor laws as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964—was forced out of his job because of his his internal and EEOC complaints. From the lawsuit, in Nimmons’s own words:

Like many other African Americans, women and other minorities, the USTA has treated me badly because of who I am, the color of my skin. In addition to the daily abuse that I never saw Caucasian male employees experience, I was called a “monkey”. I was told to return to the “ghetto.” I even heard and reported to the USTA that a hangman’s noose hung near the desk of another African-American employee at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Rather than call the police or bring back the Attorney General to investigatethis ongoing racism, I understand the USTA did nothing.

In response to my pleas to end the race discrimination against me and conduct an independent investigation, I was stripped of my work – including my diversity duties and travel to the Grand Slams tennis tournaments (e.g., the Australian Open, French Open-Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open), to promote diversity, and where I had otherwise officiated with approval for decades.

I was further retaliated against and transferred to a job as a video editor without any training. Many African Americans or women at the USTA who have complained of discrimination have either been terminated or have been so abused that they quit. Few minorities are willing to risk being kicked out of tennis and have to endure the racism and other discrimination. Myself, when I complained, I was forced out of tennis by USTA management.

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Via spokesman Chris Widmaier, the USTA categorically denied Nimmons’s allegations and said in a statement to Deadspin: “The EEOC did not conduct a full and comprehensive investigation. The agency did not contact or speak to any USTA witnesses as a part of its review process. As a result, the facts alleged by Mr. Nimmons were not adequately tested and the issues raised were not fully aired or considered.”

The EEOC, which is prohibited under federal law from discussing, confirming, or denying the existence of any discrimination charge filings or investigations unless and until the EEOC files a lawsuit, could not comment on the specific nature of its USTA investigation. However, an EEOC spokeswoman said that an EEOC investigation generally includes the offer of mediation between the employer and the complainant, and if that is unsuccessful, the EEOC usually undertakes an investigation. The spokeswoman said that in a typical investigation, the EEOC first gives the employer a chance to provide a position statement in which it responds to the charges of discrimination. The EEOC then reviews the position statement to determine further investigative steps, which can include interviewing people from the employer, such as management and coworkers, as well as the charging party. Typical investigations also include requesting evidence like documents or computerized records, holding fact-finding conferences with both sides, and visiting the employment site.

Nimmons’s lawyer Gary Ireland responded to the USTA’s claim:

“It is disappointing that the USTA would malign the EEOC and its professional staff of investigators who worked for two-and-a-half years on the claims of wide-spread racism and retaliation by the USTA. The EEOC even addresses the callous claim by the USTA that the hangman’s noose at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, claiming the noose—the most vile symbolism of racism —was some sort of joke.

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Ireland is referring to this “reasonable cause” determination document from June 2017. In the determination, which cites documentary evidence as well as the USTA’s response to the allegations, the USTA said the noose “was not related to race but was a poor [sic] conceived joke relating to difficult vendors.”

Nimmons and his lawyer are calling on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to reopen his office’s 2006 investigation of the USTA and on the New York City Council to investigate the claims of discrimination at USTA’s tennis center in Flushing Meadows (the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center), which is a New York City public park.