While Duke volleyball player Rachel Richardson endured racist abuse from BYU fans, authorities were far too slow to react

·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·6-min read

It is not Rachel Richardson’s responsibility to be the adult in this situation.

It is not the responsibility of the young Black woman being victimized for simply existing to keep her emotions in check when the venom-spewing racist (or racists) is not.

It is not the responsibility of the young Black woman being victimized for simply existing to show grace and keep playing so as not to rock the boat or upset anyone else.

It is not the responsibility of any Black woman to make you feel better after you sat idly by and did nothing as they were attacked for simply existing.

It is not the responsibility of Black people to make sure they are pleasant enough.

Or smart enough.

Or dressed well enough.

Or are educated enough.

Or earn enough.

To be acceptable enough that you find it bothersome that they were attacked simply for existing.

Every alleged adult in the arena Friday night failed Rachel Richardson and her Black teammates. Every single one.

If you haven’t seen, Duke women’s volleyball was playing an opening-season tournament at BYU last weekend in Provo, Utah. After a Friday afternoon match against Washington State, Duke played the host school in a nighttime match in the Cougars’ on-campus arena. According to a family member, Richardson, one of four Black players on the Duke roster and the only one of the four who is a starter, was called the N-word every time she served the ball by a BYU fan, and also allegedly threatened by a white man who told her to “watch her back” when she went to the team bus. It is unclear whether or not these were different people.

The only response in the moment was that a police officer was stationed near Duke’s bench.

Officials knew what was happening. Players knew what was happening. Coaches for both teams knew what was happening.

And aside from a police officer being stationed near the Duke bench, not a damn thing was done. The match, which went four sets, a 3-1 BYU win, proceeded like all was fine, and that speaks volumes.

The fan was not booted as abuse rained on Richardson and her Black teammates. (The school reportedly banned the fan from all BYU athletic events the following day). Officials did not stop the match. The BYU staff did nothing. Perhaps worst of all, Duke’s coaches seemingly did nothing to protect their own players from harm, like pulling their team off the court until the offender was removed or leaving the arena and retreating to the locker room in protest.

This is the same Blue Devils team whose Instagram featured a post earlier this month captioned, “getting stronger, together” with pictures from the weight room and at least one white player wearing a Duke-logoed “Black lives matter” T-shirt.

Together? Where was “together” Friday night as the African American members of the team were being subjected to vile harassment, having their actual Black lives devalued?

The next morning, Richardson and her father, who was in town for the tournament, met with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe; Cougars coach Heather Olmstead was not at that meeting, but did talk to Richardson and her teammates at some point.

Duke’s last match of the tournament, against Rider, was moved to a different site off BYU’s campus.

Before that match Holmoe, clutching a small card with notes, gave a predictably useless speech, refusing to call the racism "racism," instead using “egregious and hurtful slurs” as the tepid stand-in.

Holmoe announced that he’d met with Richardson and told the crowd, “If you would have met her, you would have loved her. But you don’t know her, so you don’t feel that way,” resorting to the insulting notion that since Holmoe found her charming and pleasant that she was not that kind of Black person — you know, the kind it’s OK to shower with anti-Black hatred during a volleyball match — then BYU fans were wrong to abuse her and her teammates.

It calls to mind the 2019 incident with Penn State football, when an alum wrote to safety Jonathan Sutherland to call Sutherland’s locked hair “disgusting.” Coach James Franklin explained that Sutherland is “confident, articulate and intelligent,” playing into the long-since-debunked idea of identity politics, when our grandparents believed that if they dressed well and tried a little harder to assimilate with white people and be acceptable then racism would magically disappear.

It hasn’t.

The person who was shouting at Richardson doesn’t care if she’s unfailingly nice, frequently grumpy, hilarious or a constant jerk. They saw a Black person existing, decided she did not belong, and needed to intimidate and violate her. Period.

Every alleged adult in the arena failed her, so, of course, it fell to Rachel Richardson to show them what one looks like because Black people are almost always put in the position of trying to assuage the feelings of white people in moments like these, as if it’s not the pain and hurt inflicted upon us that matters.

Richardson released a statement on Twitter that patted Holmoe on the back for showing up, applauded the Cougars team for showing good sportsmanship, and said she and Duke didn’t want to “call BYU’s athletics out, but rather to call them up” to not just indicate they aren’t racist but to demonstrate they are anti-racist.

While acknowledging the racism took a toll on her mentally, Richardson wrote she and her team kept playing on because “I refused to let those racist bigots to feel any degree of satisfaction from thinking their comments had ‘gotten to me’”, which is admirable but speaks to a long, fraught history of Black women having to be strong and fight on because no one else is going to fight for us. Duke head coach Jolene Nagel should have been the one to pull her team from the floor and protect her players until she got assurances that they would all be safe.

Every alleged adult in the arena failed Rachel Richardson and the young Black women of Duke volleyball.

A BYU fan who allegedly yelled racist slurs at Duke volleyball player Rachel Richardson has been banned from all future school athletics. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
A BYU fan who allegedly yelled racist slurs at Duke volleyball player Rachel Richardson has been banned from all future school athletics. (Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)