Burlingame Country Club suspended by U.S. Tennis Association over racism claims

HILLSBOROUGH, Calif. (KGO) -- The U.S. Tennis Association has slapped a stiff penalty on the Burlingame Country Club after investigating claims of racism by staff there.

The woman who reported the incident said players have quietly complained about the club for years.

"There comes a moment when you just know something is wrong," said Elisa Odabashian, who's a member of the visiting team that was playing a match at the club when the incident happened.

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Odabashian has played at the club before, and said once, the staff approached her to say that her shorts were too long.

"I immediately experienced it as code for homophobia, because i'm a lesbian," she said.

But this time, she said, a spectator was confronted. Her opponent called her attention to the commotion happening off the court.

"She said, 'They're harassing a black man for coming to observe his friend playing tennis,'" Odabashian said.

The man, who's from Jamaica, had asked where the bathroom was and was told to go to the clubhouse. Once there, he says a staff member confronted him.

"Said to him, 'You need to leave,' and he said, 'I'm not doing anything here,' and he said, 'Your kind does not belong here,'" Odabashian said.

Then, the club called Hillsborough Police, who sent three officers to the parking lot. The police report shows the officers left quickly, and logged the incident as "just a misunderstanding."

"We were shocked," said USTA NorCal executive director Steve Leube. "We couldn't believe this type of behavior would exist."

After Odabashian reported it, the USTA, which governs amateur tennis, launched an investigation. Leube said the organization talked to the club five times, and interviewed four people about the incident before reaching its conclusion:

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"We think there was possible profiling going on, there was discrimination," he said.

The organization took what Leube described as an unprecedented step, and served up a suspension: no USTA matches at the Burlingame Country Club for two years. Before being reinstated, he said, the club would have to establish a written anti-discrimination policy. He emphasized the sanctions are not against the players -- just the club.

"The players themselves can still form a team. What it means is they can't use Burlingame Country Club as their home site," he said.

ABC7 News asked the club for an interview, but management declined the request, and provided a written statement instead, saying in part:

"We're disappointed by the USTA NorCal's mischaracterization of what was simply an unfortunate misunderstanding. ... The guest was not complying with the club's policies about dress code and cell phone use."

Hearing the statement, Odabashian responded, "Oh, it was just about dress code; oh, it was just about a cell phone. You can call it that -- but we know what it was."
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