BYU, Duke, women's volleyball and how they intersect after the racism allegation

There is more to know five weeks after a Duke volleyball player said she was subjected to racial heckling, slurs and threats during a match at BYU.

And more to know after Southern California women's soccer players said BYU fans directed the n-word at them when they kneeled during the national anthem before their game at BYU in 2021.

What happened before the teams took the court and the field, and before the allegations sparked outrage and added scrutiny, is a good place to start.

“We almost knew something was going to happen,'' Isabel Rolley, a defender at USC last year, told USA TODAY Sports. "It was just a matter of when.''

Yet each school had taken steps to address a dynamic that Rolley, who is Black, said led to inevitable trouble.

In August, six days before the Duke volleyball team was scheduled to play BYU in Provo, Utah, Duke's players and coaches met in a room on their school’s campus in Durham, North Carolina. Two Black men, both educators, led the team through what they call “an anti-racism activation experience.’’

It is at the core of a program described on the website of A Long Talk, a company the two educators founded after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. One of the company’s missions: “to eradicate racism and dismantle white supremacy in America.”

Rachel Richardson's allegations of hearing racial heckling, slurs and threats during a match at BYU has provoked a national outcry.
Rachel Richardson's allegations of hearing racial heckling, slurs and threats during a match at BYU has provoked a national outcry.

Two photos of Duke’s players at the anti-racist session were posted on the Twitter account of Jolene Nagel, head coach of Duke’s volleyball team, on Aug. 20. Then came the BYU-Duke match – played Aug. 26, on the first day of the NCAA women’s volleyball season – and with it the Duke player’s allegations that made national news.

What has gone largely overlooked is A Long Talk.

Rachel Richardson, who was the only Black player in Duke’s starting lineup, referred to the anti-racist training in a statement posted on her Twitter account Aug. 28.

She said she and her Black teammates were targeted with racial heckling, slurs and threats during the BYU match. A 19-year-old sophomore, Richardson also wrote, “My team and I were fortunate enough to go through ‘A Long Talk,’ which is an educational series on the roots of racism and how to be an activist in not just dealing with racism, but preventing and ending it.’’

On Sept. 9, BYU announced it had completed an investigation and found no evidence to corroborate Richardson's allegations. The school said it reviewed all available audio and video of the match and reached out to more than 50 people who attended the event.

Nina King, Vice President and Director of Athletics at Duke, issued a statement Sept. 12.

“The 18 members of the Duke University volleyball team are exceptionally strong women who represent themselves, their families, and Duke University with the utmost integrity,'' the statement reads. "We unequivocally stand with and champion them, especially when their character is called into question. Duke Athletics believes in respect, equality and inclusiveness, and we do not tolerate hate and bias."

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Since then, Richardson, an outside hitter, has fallen out of Duke's starting lineup. Although she is second on the team in kills with 110, her hitting percentage (a combination of kills, errors and total attempts) is .039, well below the .250 to .300 range considered good.

Then there is life off the court.

Before the anti-racism training started for Duke's volleyball team, Richardson and other players submitted written introductions.

“As a young African American woman who has always lived in predominantly white areas, I’ve always brought the ‘outer’ perspective,’’ Richardson wrote in an introduction reviewed by USA TODAY Sports. “I’m just hoping to help educate my teammates and bring the team closer together by aiding them in seeing through someone else’s eyes and I hope they can do the same for me.’’

As A Long Talk’s website shows, the company is working with athletics programs at more than a dozen colleges. That includes not just Duke, but also BYU, plagued by racial issues long before the volleyball match.

'The most racist or least progressive place'

Of more than 33,000 students at BYU, virtually all of them are Mormon and fewer than 200 are Black. In February 2021, the school released a report saying Black, Indigenous and people of color “often feel isolated and unsafe at BYU due to racism."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints owns and runs BYU, and in October 2020 church leader Dallin H. Oaks said, "We must do better to help root out racism.”

Tom Holmoe, BYU’s athletics director, appeared to be in lock step with that pledge.

In February 2021, Holmoe hired the school’s first Associate Athletic Director For Student-Athlete Development, Diversity and Inclusion. In July, Holmoe, senior leaders in the athletic department and several head coaches participated in an anti-racist training program called “A Long Talk About the Uncomfortable Truth.”

It was about rooting out racism and the plight of Black people in America.

“A Long Talk is a conversation that I should have started a long, long time ago,” Holmoe later said in a video produced by the school.

A big part of the program is to have “uncomfortable conversations” about the “uncomfortable truth,” according to the program’s website. Other schools also recently underwent the training, including Duke, another private largely white school with a history of racial tension.

Despite the anti-racist training BYU officials underwent, Rolley said Black members of USC's team arrived in Provo for the game Aug. 26, 2021 with concerns – stemming from the historical issue of racism in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

USC (red) battles Nebraska (white) during a women's college soccer match on Sept. 11, 2022.
USC (red) battles Nebraska (white) during a women's college soccer match on Sept. 11, 2022.

At the time, Rolley was a member of USC's United Black Student-Athletes Association, which came together during the summer of 2020 following the murder of Floyd. That group asked the athletic department to directly address racism, acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, implement implicit bias training and more, according to a press release issued by USC in August 2020.

A byproduct: The formation of USC Athletics' Black Lives Matter Action Team, a task force chaired by former Los Angeles Sparks head coach Julie Rousseau, who also is USC's Associate Athletic Director for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion.

Rolley said she and her teammates knew what to expect when they showed up for road games wearing Black Lives Still Matter T-shirts before they kneeled during the anthem.

“We got a lot of backlash,'' said Rolley, who has transferred to Oregon. "But out of the places we played that year, BYU was probably like, in our uniformed opinion, the most racist or least progressive place we went to.''

It was why Keidane McAlpine, then USC's head coach, had a plan if something were to happen, according to Rolley. She said the plan went into action after USC players told Rolley they had heard the crowd chanting, "Stand up, (n-word)!''

Rolley immediately went to McAlpine, who is Black and has supported his players' efforts to call for racial justice. McAlpine spoke with BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood  before an announcement was made on the PA system.

Recalled Rolley of her exchange with McAlpine, "He’s like, 'Do you think people want to cancel the game? And I was like, 'I don’t think anyone doesn't want to play this game because it was really big for our (NCAA) tournament hopes.'  He was like, 'OK, I’m going to speak to their staff and see where we go from there.' ’’

McAlpine, now the head coach at Georgia, allowed the game to be played. BYU won, 2-1, in front of a crowd of 5,347 at South Field.

Hannah White, a senior on USC's team who was one of the players who kneeled, said she did not hear the n-word but about four teammates told her they did hear it. It was hard to hear because the crowd also was booing, according to White and Rolley.

A year later came the volleyball match and Richardson's allegations, followed by anger and outrage.

Kamal Carter and Kyle Williams, co-founders of A Long Talk, did not respond to interview requests made by USA TODAY Sports.

On the same day Richardson posted her statement on Twitter, A Long Talk retweeted it and referred to her Twitter handle in commenting, “We stand ten toes down @rachrich03 & gotch your back forever, for ever ever.’’

The company continued to post items showing support for Richardson. There is no mention of BYU’s investigation on any of the company’s social media platforms.

Duke declined requests for interviews with Richardson, Nagel and King.

But others are speaking out.

A closer look at allegations

Madi Allen, who played for BYU’s volleyball team as a freshman and sophomore before transferring after last season to the University of San Diego, said “BYU can do better” when asked about Richardson’s allegations.

“I don’t know anything about the situation other than I know BYU can do better about how to handle those situations and making it a better environment,’’ Allen told USA TODAY Sports via Instagram. “They can be more educated and I know BYU isn’t the only school that needs to be.’’

Allen, who played in six NCAA tournament matches while at BYU, did not respond when asked if she had heard racial heckling at the school.

Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, a junior at BYU, is a founder of the Black Menaces, a group of Black students who have addressed racism at the school. He said he was not surprised when he heard about Richardson and the volleyball match.

“It didn’t come as a surprise because I know people who have been called the n-word around campus,’’ Stewart-Johnson told USA TODAY Sports. “Or exposed to other racist language. It happens a lot. No one is shocked. We were all like, ‘Of course that happened.’ ”

It remains unclear who heard the racial heckling, slurs and threats Richardson said were directed at her and her Black teammates. Christina Barrow, a Duke freshman and one of four Black players on the volleyball team, told The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, that she heard no such language.

Fans cheer during an NCAA college volleyball game between BYU and Utah State in Provo, Utah, on Sept. 1.
Fans cheer during an NCAA college volleyball game between BYU and Utah State in Provo, Utah, on Sept. 1.

"Rachel was the first one who told all of us," Barrow, a reserve who did not play against BYU, said in a story published Sept. 9. "And even at first, when she first heard it, she was kind of confused like that, 'Did I just hear that?' And then when she heard it a second, third, continuous times, she was like, 'Oh, I'm definitely hearing that.' And that's when we made our coaches aware of everything."

Moorea Wood, a senior on Duke’s volleyball team who is white, said she didn’t hear racial heckling, slurs or threats, according to her mother, Barbara Wood.

But Barbara Wood told USA TODAY Sports that Moorea Wood said it is “feasible’’ if not likely, that no other Duke player heard the language because of the crowd noise. The match was played in front of 5,507 spectators, the largest crowd to watch a volleyball match at BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse, including a raucous student section.

Earlier that day, the Blue Devils had lost their season-opening match against Washington State, 3-1. That night they were trailing BYU, 2-0, when Duke’s coaching staff learned of Richardson’s allegations. She said the racial comments were coming from the fans in BYU’s student section, known as Roar of Cougar (ROC).

A police officer was informed.

So were leaders of the student section and BYU athletics officials in an effort to locate the source of racial comments, according to a copy of a police report obtained by USA TODAY Sports through an open records request.

The match continued.

BYU's investigation and the fallout

Duke, rotating onto the side of the court opposite of the student section, won the third game. At the start of the fourth game, the police officer was asked to stand between Duke’s players and the student section to listen for “inappropriate comments’’ from the fans, according to the police report.

During that fourth game, according to the police report, “no inappropriate comments were heard by the officer or other BYU Athletic staff.”

Richardson, by contrast, later told ESPN’s Holly Rowe in an interview that in the fourth game the slurs “grew more extreme, more intense.’’

Duke lost that fourth game, and, as a result, lost the match, 3-1. Richardson finished with two service errors, four kills and a hitting percentage of minus -.083, the lowest among the 11 Duke players who saw action.

After the match, BYU indefinitely banned a fan – a 20-year-old student from nearby Utah Valley University – who, according to the police report, was pointed out by Duke coaches as the person who was making racial comments.

The fan told the police officer assigned to the case that he knew four members of the BYU team, according to the police report. When the fan approached one BYU player after the game, she called him by name, said she was happy to see him and thanked him for his support during a conversation that lasted three to five minutes, according to the report.

“We wholeheartedly apologize to Duke University and especially its student-athletes competing last night for what they experienced,’’ BYU said in a statement the next day.

But the assault on Richardson’s integrity escalated Sept. 9, when BYU announced the school had completed an investigation and found no evidence to corroborate her allegations and lifted the ban on the fan.

"We remain committed to rooting out racism wherever it is found,'' the school said.

Enrollment at BYU is about 33,000 students, nearly all of which are Mormon and less than 200 of which are Black.
Enrollment at BYU is about 33,000 students, nearly all of which are Mormon and less than 200 of which are Black.

Rebecca de Schweinitz, an associate professor of history at BYU who teaches African American studies and who is white, said many students of color at BYU identified with what Richardson described because of their own experiences with racism on campus. She also pointed out that some white people used the investigation to attack anti-racist efforts at BYU.

"There were many white people who concluded in the aftermath of the investigation that the charges were all a 'hoax,' and have suggested that the outcome confirms their belief that concern about racism at BYU is overblown,'' De Schweinitz told USA TODAY Sports via email. "They are using this incident to further attack anti-racism initiatives at BYU.

"That’s been super discouraging for many in the campus community. Some black students worry that their experiences with racism at the university are now more likely to be written-off, and that 'rooting out racism,' as the school has recently pledged to do, will take a back-seat to other priorities.''

De Schweinitz also said she would have liked to have seen a statement at the end of the BYU investigation that appeared less defensive. But she said she appreciated the university taking steps to investigate the matter.

"I was really pleased to hear about the conversations that BYU’s athletic director, Tom Holmoe, had with members of Duke’s team, his strong condemnation of racism and expressions of racism, and to see that he, and the University, have put in place some new practices designed to address racist and unsportsmanlike behavior among fans at home games—things like pre-game announcements and videos that promote anti-racism, and a hotline for reporting racist incidents,'' she said. "Some of that, I think, has gotten lost in all the focus on the specific outcome of BYU’s investigation into the incident.''

WCC commish: 'I believe Rachel heard what she heard'

In fact, the outcome of the investigation triggered intense reactions.

Richardson's godmother, Lesa Pamplin, called BYU's investigation "a coverup."

Critics of Pamplin called Richardson Jussie Smollett 2.0.

Amid the mudslinging, a middle ground emerged.

On Sept. 13, the West Coast Conference (WCC) – a 10-school athletic conference of which BYU is a member – issued a statement saying it believed BYU had conducted "a transparent and thorough investigation.'' But the conference also added, "BYU's inability to locate perpetrator(s) does not mean the remarks were not said and does not mean BYU did not put the appropriate resources, time, and effort into their investigation.''

Gloria Nevarez, commissioner of the WCC, compared the investigation to those involving sportsmanship or a bad officiating call "in that you rarely find the clean answer or the piece of video that unequivocally answers whether the call was right or not.''

"I believe Rachel heard what she heard,'' Nevarez told USA TODAY Sports, "I also believe BYU conducted a thorough and transparent investigation and could not pinpoint perpetrator or perpetrators. And a lot of folks aren’t of the mind that you can have both truths.

"So for me that’s a starting place. And what guides me in working with BYU, I really did not feel they were trying to hide the ball. If I had sensed they were conflicted and maybe not doing enough or trying to sweep it under the rug or not going far enough to in questioning witnesses or involving law enforcement, then I would have suggested an outside firm or additional outside review.''

“I can’t say what they investigated and what they didn’t investigate,’’ said Silvia Johnson, director of the Metro Volleyball Club in Washington D.C., for which Richardson played for about six years. “I can just say I definitely believe Rachel because I know her character.

"Really great kid. Really great family."

Richardson is one of six children, including two other sisters who played Division I volleyball. Her mother, Gloria, is a graduate of Howard University and her father, Marvin, is deputy director of The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Two days after the BYU match, Marvin Richardson spoke to the NBC affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth and referenced his wife when he said, “We grew up in Fort Worth during the 1960s and 70s during desegregation. You know, I’m able to share those experiences with my children about what we went through.

“The same hateful rhetoric is still being spewed in 2022, in college athletic arenas? That’s not encouraging. But the fact that it is being called out and the fact that it will not exist in the dark, is encouraging.’’

Marvin Richardson did not respond to interview requests from USA TODAY Sports left by voicemail and text message.

Some discussions were taking place in private.

With the image of a volleyball in the background, A Long Talk advertised a Zoom meeting for Sept. 14 entitled, “Let’s Talk About …what happened at the game.’’ There is no recording of the Zoom meeting available on the company's website, no record of who participated or if the meeting addressed not just what happened at the match but also before and after.

It could require a very long talk.

Contributing: Brent Schrotenboer, Mike Freeman

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: BYU, Duke, volleyball and how they intersect after racism allegation