BYU has championed itself as an institution built on honor and virtue. The third bullet point in their Church of Latter Day Saints Educational Honor System demands the respect of others, including the avoidance of profane and vulgar language. On Friday evening, BYU’s athletic department threw blinders on and closed their ears while a fan sprayed the N-word towards a Black Duke women’s volleyball player, Rachel Richardson, each time she served for her team.
BYU didn’t attempt to address Richardson’s verbal abuse until her godmother, Lesa Pamplin, tweeted about the incident and the story went viral. Pamplin, a candidate for circuit court judge in Fort Worth, Texas, said that the slurs were so loud that a police officer was placed by the Duke bench. Later, BYU banned the fan hurling the racial slurs from athletic events.
Pamplin’s full statement read:
“For far too long, individuals have been subjected to racist slurs, taunts, and threats like the unfortunate incident that happened to my goddaughter, Rachel Richardson, at BYU. It is unfortunate that this incident has only received attention after I tweeted about it. Every American should be enraged that a young lady was subjected to hateful, demeaning language, and we should be even more outraged that it took a tweet from me in Tarrant County, Texas to bring this incident to light. We must, as a country, do better. We must demand that the coaches to whom we entrust our children stand up for them and keep them safe. Many adults failed my goddaughter. It is our duty – each of us – to use our voices in the spaces we occupy to protect and advocate for each other. On behalf of my goddaughter, Rachel, and her parents, thank you for the outpouring of support.”
BYU administers a strict honor code when it comes to premarital sex, but they dropped the ball when it came to standing up for Black athletes. BYU is deadly serious about its zero-tolerance premarital sex policies, but needed to wait until after the volleyball team won the match to address verbal abuse towards a Black student-athlete. BYU head coach Heather Olmstead’s 89 percent winning percentage is second in women’s volleyball history among coaches with more than five seasons — tops in Division I. She has the clout to send a message. Instead, she chose silence.
You can always judge a person or institution’s priorities based on what they consider deserves their attention. Rachel’s father, Marvin, told the Salt Lake Tribune and Roland Martin that Olmstead, the head coach of BYU, allegedly skipped a meeting with Rachel and the BYU athletic director.
“I think that is an issue. As far as I’m concerned, the coach is the first administrator on the scene. You are the coach on the floor. For her not to be there to give an account, for what I believe to be nothing more than out of respect for the player and situation …. for whatever reason she did not appear.” Rachel’s father said to the Salt Lake Tribune. “ That in it of itself sends a message.”
Added Marvin Richardson, “She impacts that entire program. And it is that influence that allows something like that to go unchecked. That is problematic. I believe in accountability. It should exist starting from the top. If you aren’t getting it from the top then you cannot expect it throughout the rest of the organization.”
Marvin added his daughter relayed to him that Olmstead was “very remorseful,” but her apathy towards Rachel, as evidenced by allegedly not attending the meeting, says more about Olmstead’s priorities than any carefully-crafted statements from BYU’s communications office ever could. Her silence speaks volumes.
“See no evil, hear no evil,” is a popular stance among white audiences who’d prefer not to be stigmatized as racist. Like many in BYU’s stands, coaching staff, and administration thought, tolerating racism is their Goldilocks principle – just the right amount. The unidentified fan who shouted racial slurs at Richardson was banned from future games but saved face by not getting ID’d publicly.
Now imagine the backlash Richardson would have received from those spineless bystanders if she’d kneeled during the anthem. We’ve seen it all across the country. When athletes get called racial slurs, bystanders clam up. When an athlete kneels in protest of inequities and police brutality within our communities, suddenly those boo-birds fly, and folks who are tolerant of racism find their red line in the sand.
Duke doesn’t get off scot-free in this either. Richardson’s head coach Jolene Nagel left her only Black player out there to take the abuse. None of the coaches or administrators from Duke or BYU can claim ignorance of what was occurring. Surely, upon being assigned a protection detail midway through a volleyball match, they knew something was amiss. Last year, the women’s college basketball team at Williams Peace University walked off the floor during a matchup with Mary Baldwin University. The protest was in solidarity with point guard Lauryn Cross, after a white player directed racial slurs at her.
BYU’s only other step to counter the backlash from their inaction the day before was to relocate its match on Saturday night against Rider to a new arena and only opened it to staff and family. BYU’s athletic director did the bare minimum to quell the firestorm by addressing fans, but ultimately it was a day late, a dollar short. If Richardson’s godmother hadn’t spoken up in a tweet, BYU would have swept this under the rug.
BYU even ignored its own research into how its minuscule Black student population feels about campus. In early 2021, the university’s Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging released a report detailing how its students of color feel isolated on campus due to the racism they’ve experienced. As the 64-page report noted, “These experiences have left many disillusioned, brokenhearted, and struggling,” and added that “Current systems at the university are inadequate for coordinating services for students seeking assistance with challenges related to race.”
A year and a half later, the university’s inadequacies have been put on display for everyone to see. If this is how emboldened the bigots within their fanbase get when an African-American is in their vicinity, their Black student populace must be exhausted. The LDS Church’s relationship with people of color is precarious enough. BYU students have even taken to Tik Tok to highlight how marginalized and overlooked they are on campus by their white peers.
Richardson, a sophomore, had more to say than BYU’s head volleyball coach has said since Friday in a message tweeted out on Sunday morning.
It shouldn’t have taken Richardson being harangued for an hour to get the attention of BYU officials or her head coach. This should be a teaching moment, but the leaders at private predominantly white institutions of learning have been slow to absorb lessons thus far.