Florida politician accused of telling Puerto Rican tennis player to ‘cut grass’

The uncle of a Puerto Rican tennis player who alleges that he and his friends were told to “cut grass” and “speak English” by a Florida politician hopes the ensuing attention — including a video — helps “prevent something like this from happening again.”

Javier Irizarry told NBC News that his 15-year-old nephew was invited to play in the Casely International Championship, which was hosted last week by Bath & Racquet Club at the Celsius Tennis Academy in Sarasota, Florida. The player was practicing Tuesday and speaking with friends when Martin Hyde, a candidate for the Sarasota City Commission, approached him, according to Irizarry.

In the video, Irizarry’s nephew, who Irizarry did not want to identify, and his peers can be heard confronting Hyde for allegedly making racist comments and instructing them to leave the Celsius Tennis Academy.

“You’re telling me to cut grass because I’m Hispanic,” one of the players says. “That’s racism, man; how can you say something like that? Aren’t you human?”

Hyde, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for a City Commission seat in 2017, can then be heard responding, “Yes, so what?”

Irizarry’s nephew tried to report the incident to staff at the academy, while Hyde tried to discredit his story.

“Look at these agitated … I don’t know what drugs they’re on,” Hyde told the staff, after daring the boys to call the chief of police, who Hyde said knows him.

The video of the tennis player accusing Hyde of racism was posted on Twitter by Alvin Couto de Jesus, a Puerto Rican attorney who got the video from Irizarry, who is also an attorney.

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Irizarry said the family doesn’t plan to sue, they just wanted to bring attention to the incident.

“Those tournaments are the only way to go up in ranking for college students,” Irizarry told NBC News. “I was concerned for his safety and worried about him when he told me about what happened.”

Irizarry added that his nephew, as a competitive high school tennis player, plays regularly outside of Puerto Rico, but that this was his first time experiencing this kind of incident.

“We had a long talk about reality and I explained to him that this guy represents a really small minority and that his behavior wasn’t normal,” Irizarry said. “I hope by sharing the video we can prevent something like this from happening again.”

Another Puerto Rican player who said he was present wrote a Twitter thread in response to the video. He, too, said Hyde told him to cut grass and that Hyde asked him where he was from. When he told Hyde he was from Puerto Rico, he accused Hyde of telling him to “shut the f— up, f—— asshole.” The player also alleges that Hyde later offered him $50,000 in exchange for the video.

In an interview with NBC News, Hyde vehemently denied the allegations of racism and he said he never offered the young men any money, saying “it never happened.” But Hyde said he was regretful about his “boorish and inappropriate behavior.”

“I was rude and I regret that. It was a long day and my kids were being disturbed while they were having their lesson, because the boys were being loud,” Hyde said. “But I simply didn’t say those things, and that’s why they’re not on the video.”

Hyde, who recently filed to run for the District 2 Sarasota City Commission, maintains that he’s being used as “a pawn” in a larger “legitimate” conversation about Puerto Rico’s issues with the mainland U.S.

The island is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria and there are issues over the funding and the speed of the recovery, though those issues have not been a focus of criticism against Hyde.

Hyde was banned from Sarasota’s Bath & Racquet Club after the incident, according to Cary Cohenour, the director of Celsius Tennis Academy, which leases courts to the club.

“We have kids from all over the world, Central America, Latin America, who play here and compete to get scholarships for college,” Cohenour told NBC News. “The whole incident was out of control and though Celsius wasn’t involved, we want people to know that we denounce racism here.”

A representative from Bath & Racquet Club did not immediately respond to NBC News’ requests for comment.

Hyde said he and his family have been receiving death threats in the aftermath of the incident. He is still contemplating whether to continue his run for the commission. Earlier this year, Hyde was fined as part of a settlement regarding a complaint of election law violations; he insisted he did nothing wrong.

Peter Vivaldi, a former Republican candidate for Florida state Senate who is of Puerto Rican descent, is among the many Latinos who responded online to the video.

“If you’re a public figure … you run for everybody, you represent everybody,” Vivaldi said. “This is not what we want to represent any party and less do we want that in the state of Florida, where when we’re talking about Puerto Ricans that are American citizens.

“We need to make sure if you’re Republican or Democrat, if you’re saying things that are not appropriate, we need to call you out.”

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