The court of public opinion is now in session and BYU is on trial for a racist incident, one in which a fan is accused of yelling the word-you-do-not-say at a visiting player. In the court of public opinion, the university (or whomever is accused) is guilty until proven otherwise — and maybe not even then, because once the accusation is made, whether it’s proven true or false, the stain remains.
This is where things stand after Duke volleyball player Rachel Richardson, who is Black, claimed that she heard “a very strong and negative racial slur” from the student section during a recent volleyball match at BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse.
“(I) was targeted and racially heckled throughout the entirety of the match,” she said. “The slurs and comments grew into threats. … Both officials and BYU coaching staff were made aware of the incident during the game, but failed to take the necessary steps. … They also failed to adequately address the situation after the game.” (Richardson later praised BYU’s handling of the situation, and specifically praised athletic director Tom Holmoe’s response.)
The problem is — and this is a pretty big one — no one else heard the racial slurs. So far, not one person has come forward to say he or she heard anything that was inappropriate. Not the police officer who was posted near the BYU student section. Not the students watching the match just a few feet from the court. Not even Richardson’s Duke teammates. BYU officials can’t find any evidence of it on video, either (since the fans sit close to the court, they are clearly seen on video). The only other people who made the accusation are Richardson’s godmother and father and they weren’t at the match; they were 1,200 miles away, in Texas, and still the first to post the incident via Twitter.
But BYU police officer Richard Laursen reported, “During the game and while I was standing on the sideline between the Duke players and the ROC section, I didn’t hear or observe any inappropriate comments or language from the ROC section.”
And yet condemnation has been swift. No one waited to see what actually happened. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley canceled a home-and-home basketball series with BYU over the incident. College volleyball teams have rushed to post tweets about “Black Outs” to rally behind Richardson — #BlackoutRacism, #StandWithRachelRichardson. The American Volleyball Coaches Association, via tweet, is urging the volleyball community to wear black to stand against racism in response to Richardson. The Deseret News reported that a death threat was made against the BYU volleyball coach. The accusations spread like wildfire in the media throughout the country.
Even BYU, hypersensitive to these issues like all universities, was quick to ban the fan who is at the center of the allegations, before the facts were clear. Richardson singled out one man for yelling the slurs — she said they occurred during the second and fourth sets — but Laursen observed the man and the student section closely in the fourth set after being made aware of the accusations. He said he never heard anything offensive.
“(The man) seemed to be more interested in talking to me than cheering for BYU,” Laursen reported. “It was evident, based on the individual’s comments, stuttered speech and mannerisms, that he has special needs. Based on my training and experience in crisis intervention training, he may have (A)sperger syndrome or could have autism.”
Right from the start, the accusations coming from the Duke volleyball player seemed suspect, and nothing since then has made them seem otherwise. It’s difficult to believe that in this era of hypersensitivity that someone could yell an emotion-charged racial epithet — repeatedly — in a crowd without any objection from those around him. Especially among students. Especially on college campuses. Especially at BYU, where students, obligated by the school Honor Code, are required to report anything that violates school standards.
A BYU student newspaper — The Cougar Chronicle — interviewed fans who were sitting in the student section during the match and could not find anyone that corroborated Richardson’s accusations. Several fans went on record to say that they heard no racial slurs and some said they were not aware there was a problem until after the match. According to the Chronicle, the mother of a BYU student says she personally knows five people who were in the student section during the match — one on the court and two on the first row — and none heard a racial slur.
All of this sounds a lot like a similar incident that involved University of Utah basketball player Britton Johnsen many years ago. Following the semifinals of the 1998 Final Four, a North Carolina player accused Johnsen of calling him the word-you-do-not-say. Johnsen denied it and had the full support of his coach and team. It created the predictable media fuss, but the UNC player eventually recanted and apologized.
None of this is to say Richardson didn’t hear something. She says she heard it “very distinctly.” But is it possible she only thought she heard it, that the word was something else?
We will probably never know. Either way, the damage has been done. The court of public opinion has already spoken.