It started as an inside joke -- good-natured racial banter in the privacy of the locker room between a black assistant coach and a group of white players on the USC football team.
They were members of an aggressive special teams unit. He called them the "White Nation." It was a tribute.
However, when it ended up on an Internet site, stripped of its insider context, it struck outsiders as shockingly racist.
On Thursday, after a story in the Daily Trojan disclosed the episode, USC officials and students scrambled to apologize, explain and contain a potential public relations embarrassment.
"It's like a joking matter within the team," said USC wide receiver Chris McFoy, who is black. "It's nothing. No big deal to it, in my opinion."
It all started innocently, according to interviews with a number of players and coaches, as part of the long tradition of name-calling and chiding typical on football fields.
"White Nation" was coined by running backs coach and special teams coordinator Todd McNair, a black former NFL player. He first used the term affectionately during game films, according to accounts, after watching some white members of the kickoff team make a spectacular play.
"I made the name. The White Nation," McNair said. "Just playfully, man."
The group included white teammates Clay Matthews Jr., Brian Cushing, Dallas Sartz and David Buehler. The verbal back-and-forth that ensued was regarded throughout the team as good-natured humor.
That all changed, however, when Matthews started a group on the popular Internet meeting site Facebook. He called the group "White Nation." And, according to the Daily Trojan account, he added:
"This group is not for the faint of heart. All members are athletes of Caucasion [sic] descent.... We are just doing our duty of protecting the Arian (sic) brotherhood."
Not only was "White Nation" exposed in a public forum but someone posted a graphic of a handcuffed black baby with a caption the Daily Trojan said called for arresting "black babies before they become criminals."
It was unclear who posted the potentially inflammatory graphic. USC athletes denied any of them were behind it.
Matthews, reached Thursday, said he used "poor judgment" in posting the page and that he "can totally see how it could be taken out of context."
He called it "a joke within the team" that should never have been made public because "it's misconstrued." The junior linebacker said he rooms with an African American, is "not a racist" and regrets posting anything about "White Nation" on the Web.
Buehler added: "There was no harmful intent."
Dinah Manning, a 20-year-old USC student offended by the group page, said the players need to better understand their position as public figures.
"They crossed a line outside the sanctity of the locker room," Manning said. "It's not a joke between [Matthews] and another player when he makes it sound like he's against an entire race. When I saw that group [on the Internet], I was in disbelief."
She called football players ambassadors for the school but said "to say what they did was in bad taste is an understatement."
McNair noted the irony of "a brother, a black guy, a coach" being the so-called founder of the Trojans' "White Nation."
"I love having fun," he said. "I gave them a nickname. I call the black coaches on our staff the Brojans. Brothers and Trojans. We're the Brojans. Playfully. Because the locker room is colorless."
Matthews said he learned an outsider had posted the graphic, which he called "a very racist picture." A source said Matthews tried immediately but unsuccessfully to remove the page.
USC professor Todd Boyd, a pop culture critic who specializes in media and sports, said he interpreted the Facebook page as "an internal joke, not mean-spirited," adding, "I doubt a white guy ... playing major college football with so many black guys holds racist beliefs."
USC Coach Pete Carroll said he had no plans to discipline the players and will remind all that websites such as Facebook and MySpace can leave the athletes in embarrassing predicaments.
Last year, a Times review of USC football players with Facebook pages found some underage players holding what appeared to be alcoholic beverages.
"He's done what he could to apologize," Carroll said of Matthews. "I think he's taken all the right steps for anybody that it offended. And there was never any intent of that at all."
USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett, who is black, dismissed the matter, saying: "I didn't find it a big deal."
Other black teammates rallied around Matthews and the others. Defensive end Lawrence Jackson called the posting "a bad decision" but said the mistake is being blown out of proportion.
"We all know these guys. People can vouch for them. They're not part of a hate group," Jackson said.
And defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis said, "I think I speak for the whole team when I say we respect Clay and we have his best interests at heart and we just hope it all goes away."
Times staff writers Robyn Norwood and Jonathan Abrams also contributed to this report.