By Sarah Donahue
Joel Stallworth and his wife, TaMiya Dickerson, saw it as a milestone moment: a world-class athlete buying his 19-month-old son his first basketball. It ended, they say, with false accusations of shoplifting and confrontations with a white Nike manager and multiple policemen.
In response, the Downtown LA couple filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against Nike and Wendy Magee, the former manager of the Nike store at Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, for claims of racially profiling and creating a traumatic, potentially life-threatening scene over a $12 basketball they paid for, according to the family’s lawyers.
“That really broke me because if I did steal the ball, it’s a $12 ball,” Stallworth said in a July 9 Zoom press conference. “It was really never about the ball; it was about her racially profiling me as a Black man.”
The incident happened on July 5, 2019. Stallworth, who owns The Small Shop LA in Downtown, said he was excited when he entered the store at Santa Monica Place.
When he left after purchasing the ball, he said he heard a commotion and Magee was “spewing out accusations” about him stealing the item. She followed the family outside and aggressively asked for him to surrender what she claimed was a stolen ball, according to Stallworth.
Magee reportedly demanded to see their receipt, to which Dickerson, a partner with a prestigious accounting firm, said she stepped in and told the manager to check the computer for proof of purchase. The family then began to walk away and head to a restaurant, they said.
Magee summoned the police to handle the situation, said Dan Stormer, a lawyer representing the case. Dickerson said she recorded the loud confrontation with the policemen on her phone as the bustling promenade crowd observed. She held her child close in a sling, hoping the situation wouldn’t turn violent, she said.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to us,” Dickerson said. “I started recording it and also I started announcing that I was recording it because I was worried that the police were going to attack.”
Frustrated with the situation, the family returned the basketball for a refund, they said. Even after seeing the receipt, the policemen followed closely behind the couple as they went inside the store to get their refund, Stormer said. This furthered the impression that the couple had done something wrong.
The police never apologized, even after they saw proof of purchase, Stormer noted.
Nike issued a statement to Argonaut sister publication LA Downtown News about the incident, saying: “Nike has clear policies and training in place to ensure the well-being of our employees and customers and prohibit profiling. In this situation, the store manager violated our policy by leaving the store and is no longer with the company. We will continue to work with our teams to ensure we deliver on our expectations for consumer experiences.”
Another of the family’s lawyers, David Washington, said Magee was fired for breaking a policy of leaving the store, not for publicly racially profiling the couple and causing an embarrassing and also potentially life-threatening scene.
Magee had a history of racist practices with her Black employees and customers, according to Washington. Immediately after the incident when the couple was getting a refund, a Black employee confided in Dickerson, saying Magee did this all the time — multiple times that day even—and he knows what it feels like, Washington said.
During Magee’s time as manager, she used the Nike radio system to use coded language like “Keep an eye on the VIP customer,” as a way to instruct employees to keep surveillance on Black customers, Washington said.
She also required Black employees — but not white employees —to turn their jackets inside out at the end of shifts to prove they weren’t stealing, Washington added. Since 2017, Nike employees who worked with Magee used their “anonymous” Nike hotline to report her racist practices, but nothing was done to correct her behavior, Washington said.
“Multiple witnesses have established Magee’s racist treatment of employees and customers and multiple witnesses have established Nike’s conscious decision to let it continue,” Washington said.
Magee subsequently filed a lawsuit against Nike claiming she was wrongfully terminated because she was white, according to Stormer.
What is important to note, Stormer said, is that this wasn’t just any family. This is a couple whose families are “exceptional tributes to overcoming discrimination and adversity through athletics,” he emphasized.
Dickerson is the daughter of legendary USC football player Sam Dickerson. Her late father is famous for scoring a winning touchdown against UCLA in 1969 and leading a defeat against the all-white Alabama Crimson Tide in the 1970 “Game That Changed the Nation,” which helped integrate college teams in the South.
Stallworth and Dickerson grew up in East Stockton, what Stallworth described as “one of the roughest neighborhoods in California.”
Stallworth said basketball was a safe haven. He played with a tight-knit group of family members on a high school team and the skills he learned conditioned him to be ready to run track for college, he said.
Stallworth is a three-time all-American athlete and holds records from his time on the Nike-sponsored Cal State University-Stanislaus track and field team. He was sponsored by Nike for track again when he won a gold medal for the United States in the 2008 IAAF World Championships in Valencia, Spain.
“Nike wasn’t just a swoosh, Nike was part of his life; Nike was an integral part of his existence,” Stormer said.
The couple said the incident was embarrassing, traumatizing and still has a lasting impact on them as well as their relationship.
“This experience has been a dark cloud over our family,” Stallworth said.
Dickerson said since the incident she has felt anxious, helpless and struggles to sleep. As a mom, she said it was mortifying because she didn’t know whether to guard her husband against the police or protect her child and record the incident from afar.
“It has stolen my joy and consumed my life,” said Dickerson, who added recalling the incident makes her feel ill.
Whenever Stallworth hears the word “receipt,” he said he is taken back to the moment.
“I’m constantly feeling like I have to prove myself as innocent when I’m already innocent and that’s not fair,” he said.
Dickerson and Stallworth want accountability from Magee and Nike, the latter of which, they said, is profiting from a deceitful ad campaign claiming that Black Lives Matter. Stormer said they want a jury to analyze Nike’s behavior so it cannot “functionally gaslight” its employees or customers any longer.
“What we are now seeing is the filing of this lawsuit caused by this insensitivity toward African Americans and the use of them as a way of making money but in reality, not really supporting them,” Stormer said.
No monetary damages have been specified, according to the statement from lawyers. This lawsuit includes causes of action for unlawful detention, false imprisonment, slander, the denial of equal rights under the law, and various other violations of state and federal law, the statement said.
“Discrimination is deep-seated in our society, it has to be addressed,” Stormer said. “Racism was fundamentally at the bottom of what took place on July 5, 2019.”
A version of this story originally appeared in LA Downtown News, a Times Media Group sister publication of The Argonaut.