The St. Thomas men’s hockey team has apologized for using a sombrero to celebrate good performances and for posting Instagram photos of players wearing a sombrero, saying there was no intention to demean any individuals or their heritage.

Athletic Director Steve Fritz and Coach Jeff Boeser said the team’s use of the sombrero was inappropriate, as were the social media posts, which were removed from an Instagram site last week.

“As student athletes, we believe in the precept that the University of St. Thomas Athletics Department is committed to being a welcoming and inclusive community,” the team said in a statement. “We are grateful for the open environment which is fostered at St. Thomas [and] led to a constructive and informative dialogue about the incident.”

President Julie Sullivan will host a forum after spring break for faculty, staff and students, including those who represent each sport on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, to discuss the importance of inclusivity. In addition, Dr. Artika Tyner, interim officer for diversity and inclusion, will give a presentation to the Athletic Department and student athletes about the value of an inclusive learning community.

Sullivan and Tyner emphasized that inclusivity is one of the priorities – Embracing Our Differences as One Human Family – in the university’s strategic plan.

“Two of our core convictions are dignity and diversity,” Sullivan said, “We must continue to educate ourselves on cultural biases and ensure that our actions portray our respect for the dignity of all individuals and our appreciation for the unique contributions each person brings to our community.”

Karina Cuate-Ramirez, a St. Thomas junior and marketing representative on the Hispanic Organization for Latino Awareness (HOLA), a student club, said use of the sombrero reinforced unfortunate stereotypes about people from other ethnic and racial backgrounds.

“It was upsetting to see the sombrero used in this manner, and then displayed in photos on the team’s Instagram site,” she said. “We felt it was disrespectful even if that was not their intent.”

Cuate-Ramirez said she believes the incident can turn into a “learning moment” by bringing more awareness to these kinds of issues, and she is encouraged that Sullivan and Tyner will be involved in the forum and presentation.

Instagram posts

Boeser said the team used different objects, including a sombrero, a wrestling championship belt, a brick and a shovel, as awards for good play during the last two seasons. The sombrero was meant to signify celebration and achievements by forwards, he said, while defensemen and goalies received a wrestling belt or a brick. A shovel was awarded when someone dug the team out of trouble.

“Lack of intent is not in any way a valid excuse for lack of good judgment and subsequent actions that negatively affect any member of the St. Thomas community,” Fritz said. “Insensitivity and cultural bias in any form is not acceptable.”

Fritz said he is developing a policy that will outline the responsibility of staff members, coaches and student athletes in dealing with issues related to inclusivity and diversity. A Statement on Offensive Behavior, which is part of the Undergraduate Student Policy Book, condemns materials “offensive to either gender or to racial, ethnic or religious groups,” as well as verbal abuse, jokes or insults.

“In recruiting, training, competition, team activities and communication,” Fritz said, “everyone is expected to be sensitive to cultural biases and embrace cultural differences represented in our St. Thomas community and global society.”

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