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Intensive BYU investigation finds no evidence of racist slur beyond Duke player’s statement

BYU drops ban on fan, says investigators scrutinized video and audio and reached out to 50 eyewitnesses, including Duke players and athletic department personnel

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An image of Brigham Young University’s landmark campus sign.

Nate Edwards

After an intensive investigation, there is no evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans used racial slurs during the BYU-Duke volleyball match on Aug. 26, Brigham Young University said Friday morning in a news release.

The investigation included reaching out to more than 50 eyewitnesses, including Duke and BYU volleyball players and athletic department personnel. The university also said its investigation reviewed extensive video and audio of the match.

“We reviewed all available video and audio recordings, including security footage and raw footage from all camera angles taken by BYUtv of the match, with broadcasting audio removed (to ensure that the noise from the stands could be heard more clearly),” the BYU release said.

During the match on Aug. 26, Duke outside hitter Rachel Richardson said she heard racial slurs during the second set while she served two balls in front of the ROC student section of fans.

She told a teammate about the slurs while the teams switched sides of the court following the set, and the two players told Duke coach Jolene Nagel. Nagel spoke with BYU coach Heather Olmstead, and BYU immediately sent a police officer and four ushers into the student section.

Richardson said she heard the slurs more intensely in the fourth set, when the ushers, BYU Police Det. Sgt. Richard Laursen and a Duke assistant athletic director stood near where she served and by the student section.

“I told the (BYU) Athletic staff that I never heard one racial comment being made,” Laursen said in his police report.

After the match, BYU banned a fan who Duke said had used the N-word and had made a player uncomfortable after the match. The fan is not a BYU student.

Laursen stood next to the man throughout the fourth set and said the man did not use any racist language. Laursen said he believed the man may have “(A)sperger syndrome or could have autism.”

BYU dropped the ban on the fan on Friday.

“We have not found any evidence that that individual engaged in such an activity,” the school’s statement said. “BYU sincerely apologizes to that fan for any hardship the ban has caused.”

The match, which 10th-ranked BYU won 3-1, set a school record for attendance in the sold-out Smith Fieldhouse with 5,507 fans. Event officials reported they turned away another 1,000 fans.

Duke freshman Christina Barrow, one of four Black players on the team, told The News & Observer in North Carolina last week that she did not hear the slurs in the loud arena, but she and her teammates stood by Richardson.

Duke University vice president and athletic director Nina King issued a statement Friday following the release of the BYU investigation’s conclusions.

“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,” King said. “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.”

BYU’s full statement on Friday said:

As part of our commitment to take any claims of racism seriously, BYU has completed its investigation into the allegation that racial heckling and slurs took place at the Duke vs. BYU women’s volleyball match on August 26. We reviewed all available video and audio recordings, including security footage and raw footage from all camera angles taken by BYUtv of the match, with broadcasting audio removed (to ensure that the noise from the stands could be heard more clearly). We also reached out to more than 50 individuals who attended the event: Duke athletic department personnel and student-athletes, BYU athletic department personnel and student-athletes, event security and management and fans who were in the arena that evening, including many of the fans in the on-court student section.

From our extensive review, we have not found any evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs at the event. As we stated earlier, we would not tolerate any conduct that would make a student-athlete feel unsafe. That is the reason for our immediate response and our thorough investigation.

As a result of our investigation, we have lifted the ban on the fan who was identified as having uttered racial slurs during the match. We have not found any evidence that that individual engaged in such an activity. BYU sincerely apologizes to that fan for any hardship the ban has caused.

Our fight is against racism, not against any individual or any institution. Each person impacted has strong feelings and experiences, which we honor, and we encourage others to show similar civility and respect. We remain committed to rooting out racism wherever it is found. We hope we can all join together in that important fight.

There will be some who assume we are being selective in our review. To the contrary, we have tried to be as thorough as possible in our investigation, and we renew our invitation for anyone with evidence contrary to our findings to come forward and share it.

Despite being unable to find supporting evidence of racial slurs in the many recordings and interviews, we hope that all those involved will understand our sincere efforts to ensure that all student-athletes competing at BYU feel safe. As stated by Athletics Director Tom Holmoe, BYU and BYU Athletics are committed to zero-tolerance of racism, and we strive to provide a positive experience for everyone who attends our athletic events, including student-athletes, coaches and fans, where they are valued and respected.

BYU did not mention Richardson, who initially criticized BYU on Twitter for not doing more to stop the slurs during the match.

BYU, athletic director Tom Holmoe and women’s volleyball coach Heather Olmstead immediately apologized to Richardson and stood with her against racism. The school continued to stand with her throughout the investigation.

Richardson praised Holmoe, who did not attend the game, after the two met the morning after the match.

I very much so felt heard and felt seen during that conversation,” Richardson told ESPN. “...And I don’t want BYU to be singled out or looked at as a bad institution because of this one thing … that doesn’t represent the entire university of BYU.”

She also praised BYU’s volleyball players for their sportsmanship and their support in the days after the incident.

Holmoe called racism “disgusting and unacceptable.”

He also apologized to Richardson in person and on national television.

“Regardless of whether we were able to identify racist statements during the event,” he wrote last week, “my first concern remained for the student athlete who felt unsafe in our venue. I met with Rachel and her head coach the following morning. I apologized to her and spoke to our entire fan base later that night. BYU Athletics separately issued a statement condemning racism, which we continue to stand by.”

Former BYU football star Derwin Gray, now a South Carolina pastor, spoke on campus on Friday and said Richardson still deserved to be believed.

“You always believe the testimony of a person,” Gray told the Deseret News. “So I think Miss Richardson shared what she believes she heard, and I think Coach Holmoe and the athletic department responded properly with (putting) policemen in that area.

“Just because it wasn’t caught on audio or video doesn’t mean that’s not what she heard,” he said. “I think Miss Richardson’s statement was she did not believe the (slur) was reflective of the school. I think in a time like ours, it was handled as best that she could handle it.”

The investigation’s conclusions call into question commentaries condemning BYU students and fans for not immediately stopping the abusive language.

ESPN personalities Stephen A. Smith, Michael Irvin and Marcus Spears ripped BYU for what Smith called dereliction of duty for not stopping the banned fan from hurling the alleged slurs as they happened.

Irvin, for example, said “This was a gym, so everyone heard this kid. … No one comes out clean.”

Instead, BYU’s investigation found that no one else in the sold-out gym could hear the slurs.

Olmstead, the BYU women’s volleyball coach, received death threats. Olmstead learned after the second set that Richardson said she’d heard racist slurs and immediately reported them to BYU athletic department personnel and event staff.

After the match, Olmstead issued an apology to Richardson and expressed support.

The findings also have implications for the University of South Carolina’s decision to pull out of its contract for a home-and-home basketball series with BYU.

A group of South Carolina legislators said they will investigate USC women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley’s decision to drop the game before the conclusion of BYU’s investigation.

“It is our opinion the university acted arbitrarily and capriciously without consideration or regard for the facts and circumstances,” wrote the Freedom Caucus, a group of 14 conservative legislators in the South Carolina House.

The group asked whether USC acted without supporting evidence and whether it would reschedule the BYU games and apologize if evidence didn’t support the allegations. The caucus said it had used its legislative authority on Sept. 7 to ask for any and all records at USC about the decision.

Staley issued a statement Friday afternoon.

“I continue to stand by my position,” she said. “After my personal research, I made a decision for the well-being of my team. I regret that my university, my athletics director Ray Tanner and others got drawn into the criticism of a choice that I made.”

The incident became a national subject of polarized political debate. Some on the right called Richardson’s claims a hoax. Some on the left said the incident showed BYU was full of racists.

One columnist said BYU was on trial in the court of public opinion, where it was 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.”

A USA Today columnist made the case for why Richardson should be believed.

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