‘We told you so’: For Black athletes racism from college fans is a familiar story

By Nathan Kalman-LambDerek Silva and Johanna Mellis

October 6, 2022

Read the full article HERE.

So widespread is racist abuse from the stands that ignoring it is seen as part of a college athlete’s job.

“I just remember that there was like a consistent chant of ‘stand up, N-words’ during the anthem and right after. And when brought to the attention of the BYU coaching staff there was no real response or sense of, like, alarm.”

That’s what a women’s soccer player told us she and her teammates experienced in 2021 at Brigham Young University when they knelt for the national anthem to protest racist police brutality before a game. Four other teammates independently confirmed that they heard the comments in a story published in the Guardian last week. After complaints from the players, an announcement was made reminding fans to respect the athletes, but no further action was taken until BYU said this week that it was investigating the incident following the Guardian’s reporting.

The allegations came less than a month after a Duke volleyball player, Rachel Richardson, said she had been subjected to racist chants from the crowd during a game at BYU in August. Other players on the Duke team told the Guardian that while they did not hear any racist comments during the game, they received threats, such as fans yelling that they should “watch [their] back,” that came from “many small clusters of people, not one specific person.”

The university subsequently banned a fan from all its athletic events. However, that ban was later rescinded after BYU reviewed video and audio recordings of the match and spoke to people who had attended the game. One of Richardson’s teammates told the Guardian that she was not surprised other people could not specifically speak to hearing the same comments as Richardson, noting that “most of the people on the court were blocking everything out, or were just hearing player names being called, the rest was noise.”

Despite the university’s inquiry, many college athletes we spoke to believe BYU has a problem with racism among its fanbase.

“Taking into consideration BYU’s failure to address white supremacy and racism amongst their fan base in 2021, it comes as no surprise that fans in 2022 are using the same language to intimidate Black athletes,” says former University of Pittsburgh track athlete Jordan Fields. “I’m thankful some coaches like [South Carolina’s] Dawn Staley, have reconsidered whether it’s safe to allow their predominantly Black teams to compete in Provo. Sport is not bigger than the athlete, and competing against BYU in any sport poses a threat to the health and safety of any Black athlete on a visiting team.”

Then again, BYU itself admits it has a problem. In 2021, the university released a report saying that its students of color often feel “unsafe and isolated” due to racism on campus (fewer than 1% of undergraduates at the school are Black). Colin Anderson, a former Vanderbilt football player, wonders if a hostile culture on campuses at predominantly white institutions like BYU leads to a hostile atmosphere at athletic events.

“The same kids who feel comfortable rejecting minority students from parties are the same ones comfortable enough to yell in public spaces,” he says.

Some doubt whether anything substantial is being done to change the culture at BYU. One of Richardson’s Duke teammates, who wished to stay anonymous due to fear of reprisal, says last week’s report of racism at the soccer game was a “disappointment”.

“I was reading on yet another incident that shed light on BYU’s culture,” she says. “Why is this still happening time after time? Why are coaches always so surprised, yet when alumni hear about them they say it has been happening for years? After our own experience the BYU athletic director did what he could do. Do I think he could step up and do more, yes. However this calls for a cultural shift. Incidents like this cannot keep popping up on the news daily. We have to reach a point where fans no longer feel this is an OK thing to do.”

Another of Richardson’s teammates, who also requested anonymity, says: “Having a culture that allows for such hateful actions to pass by uninterrupted and almost unseen is unacceptable.”

BYU did not respond to questions from the Guardian about whether its campus is a hostile environment for Black athletes, and whether steps are being made to address any such issues. Jon McBride, BYU’s associate athletic director for communications and media strategy, has previously told the Guardian that “BYU will not tolerate racism in any form.”

But reports of racism in college sports are not confined to BYU. And the stories are far from new. In 1983, Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing infamously faced racist mockery when a banana peel was thrown at him during a game, and he was also subjected to racist signs targeting his intellect. After receiving MVP honors at the 1960 Cotton Bowl, the first African-American Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis could not accept his own award at a post-game banquet because it was held in a segregated facility. And in 1961, the UCLA basketball team faced such intense racist heckling from white fans that coach John Wooden did not field any of his Black players in a second game.

More recently, in 2014, current NBA player and former Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart shoved a Texas Tech fan, saying the fan called him a racist slur. That same year, Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner detailed the numerous instances of racism that he faced during his time with the Wolverines, including being “called the N-word” many times. And former New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin says the racist abuse he was subjected to in college was worse than anything he experienced in the NBA, highlighting incidents at Cornell, Georgetown, Yale, and Vermont.

The long, dismal list goes on. In 2018, Missouri’s AD accused South Carolina fans of spitting at and making racist slurs against Missouri’s women’s basketball team. After Florida State’s loss to rival Florida in November 2019, a man posted an image on Facebook of FSU coach Willie Taggart, the first Black head football coach in the university’s history, being lynched. In January of that same year, Black basketball players from Labette Community College were subject to “monkey noises and crow caws” when they visited North Arkansas College. Earlier this year, a Wisconsin fan made anti-Asian racist gestures in Northwestern at a men’s basketball game between the schools and was ejected. On another occasion this year, an Iowa fan shouted a racist slur at a Wisconsin wrestler.

“Any underrepresented minority that’s played college athletics or has been in a competitive space has faced something thrown at them that’s racially/sexually charged,” says Anderson, the former Vanderbilt football player.

Indeed, so widespread is such abuse that ignoring it is seen as part of a college athlete’s job. Danté Stewart, a former Clemson football player and author of Shoutin’ in the Fire says that “we are taught to block it all out when we are on the field … our race and gender or sexuality are erased under the guise of ‘one team, one dream.’”

The problem seems to have become worse in the last few years as athletes started to protest against racial and social injustice, often by kneeling during the national anthem before games.

Former college volleyball player turned social justice educator Jen Fry explains why Black athletes seem to be speaking out more: “With the amount of racial abuse in an inbox one would wonder why it is hard to believe Black athletes when they come out with the stories of what they hear from the stands. Athletes understand that when they do come forward they will not be believed, called a liar, or gaslighted that ‘they didn’t hear what they thought they heard.’ These athletes come forward anyways, knowing what will be potentially said about them and to them.”

Former UCLA soccer player Kaiya McCullough is well aware of what was said to her. “I definitely experienced racism from fans while playing college soccer, especially when I was kneeling for the national anthem. While not always overt in person, I was heavily criticized online by people who saw my protest, sometimes even calling me a ‘monkey,’” she says.

In 2020, Ohio State basketball player Seth Towns was detained by police during a peaceful protest following the police killing of George Floyd. He says he was soon subjected to “all kinds of hatred on social media.” He adds: “I was called [the N-word] countless times in my DMs, was told to ‘go to my ancestral hut in the jungle’ and a bunch of other wild shit to name a few of the more overt occurrences.”

As Stewart explains: “When Clemson put Black Lives Matter stickers on their helmets [in response to the killing of Floyd] the response was more than backlash. It was …white rage. It wasn’t just like them being bothered. There was something deeper than being bothered that they display like it was almost like … Yeah, it was hatred. It was a very deep seated hatred of Clemson of athletes, because it’s like: ‘We don’t do that.’”

Anderson reported similar experiences, telling us “when it comes to [players] kneeling for the anthem, we were told not to. Some people still did, so we ended up changing our whole pregame schedule so that players weren’t out when the anthem played. We had mostly black coaches and they felt that was the best way to protect us both from the choice of to kneel or not to kneel.”

McCullough also notes the surge of anti-Black rightwing politics as a factor in fan racism. “I’d say these issues definitely seem to be more common now after the Trump presidency, in part due to his normalization of overt racism and dog-whistle politics,” she says. “The more entitled people feel to hold certain attitudes about race, the more emboldened they are to share those attitudes, regardless of how it might negatively impact people.”

Stewart concludes that “it’s not enough to celebrate us in your homes or while you’re watching us play the game, but then condemn us when we protest.”

The pain caused by this racism is often made worse by the fact that they are disbelieved when they report incidents of abuse. After BYU’s investigation into Richardson’s case she was widely depicted as a fantasist.

“She has no incentive to go to a campus where she will be in the extreme minority and make up a story about hearing racial slurs all game long. By insinuating that she made this story up, people are calling into question someone with a demonstrated track record of excelling academically and athletically,” says Brianna Pinto, a former two-time soccer All-American at the University of North Carolina and current professional with the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage.

Letisha Brown, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati who studies racism in sport, says: “When Black folks and other people of color make statements about their experiences of racism there is often backlash, people are called ‘too sensitive,’ or flat out accused of lying.” She adds: “the emotional labor does take a toll, having the burden of proof placed upon the shoulders of those who are oppressed is par for the course unfortunately and it is awful.”

Ultimately, the racist abuse suffered by players is another symptom of college sports’ plantation dynamics, in which white institutions make money from the labor of unpaid Black labor. It is a fact understood all too well by the players who experience it.

“They value the college athlete solely in their athletic form and treat them as if they are worthless when they take their uniform off,” says Fields. “Pointedly, Black college athletes ‘compete’ in a system where white fans’ expectations are extremely high and often displayed through irrational anger and hyper-criticism.”

In the end, none of the athletes we talked to were surprised about what happened to Richardson and the visiting women’s soccer team, because they and their colleagues across the country spent the summer of 2020 and beyond trying to deliver the message that racism is a defining feature of college sport.

Thus, Pinto is ultimately frustrated by how emblematic these incidents are of the structural racism that continues to saturate college athletics. “For far too long, Black people have fought to have our voices heard and receive justice for the racism we have faced for centuries,” she says. “I stand with Rachel Richardson and call the athletes, coaches, and leaders in the athletics departments from both universities to make actionable change to ensure that something like this will never be tolerated again. Believe in Black voices, protect Black players, and embrace accountability.”

Or, as Fields puts it, “In the end, all I can say is: Black athletes told you so.”

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