As a child growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1960s and early ’70s, Marvin Richardson lived through school desegregation and the racial turmoil that followed the passage of the Civil Rights Act. He lived through the “fears and challenges” that came with being Black in the South, he said Sunday, and grew accustomed to “having to deal with that ignorance right in your face.”
“The things that you experience growing up, you always hope that your children don’t have to live through them,” Richardson, 60, said by phone two days after one of his daughters, a Duke sophomore volleyball player, became the target of racially-charged slurs during a match at BYU. “But unfortunately the world that we live in is sometimes cyclical.
“And you find yourself repeating the past. And so here we are.”
Richardson on Friday night was home in Ellicott City, Maryland, watching the television broadcast of Duke’s volleyball match at BYU in Provo, Utah. His daughter, Rachel Richardson, is an outside hitter for the Blue Devils. Watching at home, the elder Richardson didn’t hear or notice anything amiss during the match, in which Duke suffered a 3-1 defeat.
When it ended he waited for his daughter’s phone call.
“We always speak,” he said, “after every game.”
When he answered her call this time, he immediately knew something was wrong. On the other end of the phone, his daughter was crying. She was on the team bus and, more than 2,000 miles away, Marvin Richardson could sense the distress in her voice as she detailed what she’d experienced inside BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse.
In the second set, when Rachel Richardson was serving on the side closest to the BYU student section, she became the target of racial slurs, including the n-word. The harassment came from multiple people, the elder Richardson said, citing his daughter, and it continued in the fourth and final set, when Duke returned to the end of the court closest to the students.
“My fellow African-American teammates and I were targeted and racially heckled throughout the entirety of the match,” Rachel Richardson said in a statement on Sunday. “The slurs and comments grew into threats, which caused us to feel unsafe.”
BYU placed a police officer between the Duke bench and the student section but, both Rachel Richardson and her father said, that wasn’t nearly enough.
“Both officials and BYU coaching staff were made aware of the incident during the game,” Rachel Richardson said, “but failed to take the necessary steps to stop the unacceptable behavior and create a safe environment.”
Said Marvin Richardson, “There was knowledge of the slurs, on behalf of the officials and the coaching staffs. And nothing was done.”
BYU spokesman Jon McBride, in an email to The News & Observer Sunday, confirmed Duke’s team made it known they were being harassed. But, he said, they were initially unable to identify the perpetrators.
“They nor our security or events staff could locate an individual who was voicing the remarks,” McBride said. “It wasn’t until after the game when an individual was pointed out by Duke. That individual received the ban. The Duke team nor our staff could identify others, but we recognize their assertion that they heard others.”
Meanwhile, 19-year-old Rachel “tried to power her way through it,” her father said.
“My teammates and I had to struggle just to get through the rest of the game,” she said, “instead of just being able to focus on our playing so that we could compete at the highest level possible.”
What his daughter endured at BYU first gained attention on Saturday, when Rachel’s godmother, Lesa Pamplin, shared on Twitter details about the incident. Pamplin wrote that Rachel was called the n-word “every time she served” and that “she was threatened by a white male that told her to watch her back going to the team bus.” Pamplin’s tweet quickly went viral — it had been retweeted more than 52,000 times, as of Sunday afternoon — and the story received national coverage.
An opportunity to learn something
It has now become a flashpoint, a referendum on how schools should address racism on their campuses, and what they should do to protect students — athletes or not — who are the target of racial animus. In this case, Marvin Richardson said, both schools should have acted more quickly to protect his daughter and Duke’s three other Black players. He also expressed disappointment that no one from BYU put an immediate stop to those in the crowd responsible for the racist slurs.
“There wasn’t anything done other than that police officer placed at that end of the floor,” he said. “… We don’t blanket BYU or BYU students or Provo — we don’t look at it like that. But what we do is look at it and say that here there’s an opportunity maybe to learn something. To take away from this, and try to ensure that it never happens again.
“But you can’t do that in the dark. You’ve got to call it out.”
Both Duke president Vince Price and ACC commissioner Jim Phillips released statements expressing their “outrage” at the incident. Phillips said he contacted officials at both Duke and BYU to fully understand what happened in Provo and incite action from BYU.
“I am confident they are taking the appropriate measures to address our concerns,” Phillips said.
BYU athletics director Tom Holmoe said his department didn’t handle the usage of “egregious and hurtful slurs” at its events as well as he liked.
In a speech to the Smith Fieldhouse crowd prior to Saturday night’s BYU-Washington State game, Holmoe said he had met with Richardson and Duke coach Jolene Nagel earlier in the day.
“As children of God, we are responsible,” Holmoe said. “It’s our mission to love one another and treat everyone with respect. That didn’t happen. We fell very short. We didn’t live up to our best.
“I ask that everyone, at all of our games, that represent BYU, that you will have the courage to take a stand and be able to take care of each other and, most importantly, the guests, our guests who we invite to come and play here.”
Rachel Richardson said, though deeply affected by the slurs, she “refused to allow it to stop me from doing what I love to do.”
“I refused to allow those racist bigots to feel any degree of satisfaction,” she said.
BYU coach Heather Olmstead apologized to Duke and its players in a Sunday statement. She said she had “productive conversations” with Rachel Richardson and others from the team.
“They have helped me understand areas where we can do better,” Olmstead said. “I thank them for taking the time to speak with me. I want the very best for them and the entire Duke team.”
Rachel Richardson thanked Holmoe for his “quick response” once he was made aware of the situation. She said she appreciates all who have reached out and offered support. She also “expressed gratitude for Duke athletics administration for being quick to act on my team’s behalf.”
Duke’s Saturday game with Rider, originally scheduled for Smith Fieldhouse, was relocated to a local high school gym. Spectators were limited to family members.
BYU under scrutiny again
BYU has come under scrutiny before for its handling of problems involving race. Among the findings of a recent report the university commissioned was that students there who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color “often feel isolated and unsafe at BYU due to racism.” The BYU Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging authored the report, and released it in February 2021.
Among the committee’s findings was that “there appears to be no cohesive ‘ownership’ or accountability for promoting an enriched environment or the values of racial equity and belonging at BYU.” A member of BYU’s Black Student Union told the report’s authors that, “My experience as a Black student at BYU is not equal to other students on campus because I don’t feel safe.”
The report also included anonymous accounts of other Black BYU students. Among their claims:
“I got baptized in racism when I came to BYU.”
“People have normalized aggressive comments here.”
“I feel oppressed here.”
“I am fearful. But I should have the same right to feel safe [that the White students have].”
In her statement on Sunday, Rachel Richardson described those responsible for the racist taunts as “racist, ignorant and asinine.” Richardson, though, praised the Duke administration for “being quick to act on my teams’ behalf.”
She wrote that it was not her goal to call out BYU “but rather to call them up.”
“This is not the first time this has happened in college athletics and sadly it likely will not be the last time,” Richardson wrote. “However, each time it happens we as student athletes, coaches, fans, and administrators have a chance to educate those who act in hateful ways.
“This is an opportunity to dig deep into closed cultures which tolerate amoral racist acts, such as those exhibited Friday night, and change them for the better. It is not enough to indicate that you are not racist, instead you must demonstrate that you are anti-racist.”
Speaking to what is right — and wrong
For her father, meanwhile, her experiences brought back memories of trauma he endured decades ago, experiences that have never left him and ones he hoped his six children wouldn’t have to live through themselves. He could tell stories about the fear he felt, riding the bus “from a small Black community to a white community” when schools became desegregated in the early 1970s.
In those days, Marvin Richardson said, racism was much more “overt” and the ability to challenge it much more difficult, “so that when things happened then, it was a lot more in the dark.” When his daughter called him after the match on Friday night, crying, they wound up talking for hours, until 2 or 3 a.m., Eastern time.
They talked about how to proceed and “here we have an opportunity today to shine a light on it,” Richardson said he told her, “and to call it out. And to not accept it. And to be heard. And to actually take action.”
On the phone, he said he told his daughter, “your response to this is one that is going to be needed for this time.” Richardson knew that in another time, when he was younger, he wouldn’t have had the same chance to speak out — or, if he had, his voice wouldn’t have carried as far.
Now, this was a new time.
“I’ve raised her to be able to stand and speak her mind,” he said, “and to be able to speak to what is right and what is wrong, and to not stand by and accept something that is wrong.”
This story was originally published August 28, 2022 8:22 PM.
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