A table tennis coach’s passion for his sport led to a showdown on a winter Sunday afternoon at Polo Road Park.
Angry words were exchanged. Threats were perceived by both sides. The table tennis coach suggested “let’s go outside,” a phrase that often precedes a physical altercation.
No punches were thrown, but the argument on Feb. 19 led to table tennis coach Joel Mitchell being barred from Richland County Recreation Commission parks for life and to Mitchell filing a defamation of character lawsuit against commission executive director James Brown, his opponent in the argument.
Mitchell is the president of the Palmetto Table Tennis Club. He bought the tables the club uses and had provided coaching for the players Sunday afternoons and Tuesday nights at the Polo Road Park gym since 2009. Now he can’t go in the gym.
After an unprecedented hearing of Mitchell’s appeal of his suspension in March, the 59-year-old Army vet questioned the integrity of a process that makes the commissioners, who hired Brown, the judge and jury in the case.
Mitchell aims to get a different jury to hear the case, one in Richland County civil court. Attorney Lewis Cromer on Tuesday filed a lawsuit alleging Brown defamed Mitchell with false statements about the Feb. 19 argument. It also alleges negligence by the commission for its handling of the investigation and violation of Mitchell’s due process for the handling of the appeal hearing.
The argument, apparently, is far from finished.
The showdown began Feb. 18, when Mitchell read an email from an agency staff member telling him the table tennis club no longer had Sunday access to the gym. The change was effective the following day.
Mitchell showed up at Polo Road the next day, searching for an explanation. Brown was at the gym that Sunday anticipating trouble. He told Mitchell that he had the authority to make the decision to change the gym schedule, and he felt there was more demand for free-play basketball than table tennis.
At one point, Teresa Mitchell, Joel’s wife, accused Brown of discriminating against table tennis players. (Brown and the Mitchells are African-Americans. The racial makeup of the table tennis group is more diverse, and white, than the free-play basketball players. But race never specifically was mentioned as a factor during the hearing.)
According to the Mitchells, that’s when Brown raised his voice at Teresa Mitchell and pointed his finger at her, prompting Joel Mitchell to join the argument. As voices were raised, Joel Mitchell said “Let’s go outside.”
Brown interpreted Mitchell’s mannerisms and “let’s go outside” comment as an invitation to exchange punches. “A few years ago, I would have gone outside,” Brown said on March 19 during the appeal hearing on the ban.
“I didn’t want to beat up Mr. Brown,” Mitchell countered, noting that Brown is much larger than he is. “I asked Mr. Brown to come outside because everything was escalating and getting loud in the gym.”
Two park staffers agreed with Brown that Mitchell’s attitude seemed threatening.
Teresa Mitchell backed her husband’s contention that Brown was the one who went too far. Another table tennis player supplied written comments describing Brown’s behavior as unprofessional.
Teresa Mitchell said Brown responded to the “let’s go outside” comment by buffing out his chest and saying, “Bring it on.”
Brown described a different scene, saying he never pointed his finger at Teresa Mitchell. He characterized Joel Mitchell as “charging at me” before Teresa Mitchell and assistant park manager Lefunzo Wright stepped in to hold Joel Mitchell back.
“His attitude is horrible,” Brown said, mentioning previous problems when Mitchell organized a Wounded Warriors table tennis tournament at the park. “When he doesn’t have his way, he gets angry.”
Cooler heads prevailed on Feb. 19. Law enforcement was not called, so no police report was filed on the incident.
Eight days later, the Mitchells and dozens of table tennis backers showed up at the February commission meeting to complain about losing their Sunday time slot in the gym and about the Feb. 19 showdown. The next day, Joel Mitchell received a letter saying he had been banned from the agency’s parks.
Several people appeared at the March commission meeting to speak on behalf of table tennis and Joel Mitchell. The table tennis group still is allowed to set up tables and play at Polo Road on Tuesday nights. (They have been scheduled for – but haven’t used – a block of time on Friday nights in recent years.)
“This has nothing to do with table tennis,” commissioner Todd Weiss told the players. Instead, the hearing was about Joel Mitchell’s behavior. Several commissioners said they saw no compelling reason to overturn the park staff’s decision on the ban.
The commission members, who said they never had participated in such an appeal process, unanimously sided with Brown at the end of the hearing. The lifetime ban stands, though Mitchell can appeal for reinstatement again after a year.
Mitchell doesn’t regret complaining, even if it contributed to his losing the right to coach table tennis players in the parks.
“Someone had to be informed about (Brown’s) behavior, which was supposed to be professional,” Mitchell wrote in his official appeal of his suspension. “He will continue to treat people this way as long as he is allowed to get away with it.”