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College Athletics Investigative Practices Leave Much to Be Desired

Sophomore Duke University athlete, Rachel Richardson, allegedly endured a storm of racial slurs during a volleyball game against Brigham Young University (BYU) in August. Richardson reported the abuse, and the suspect was initially banned from all of BYU’s athletic events. In an Aug. 26 statement, however, the BYU athletics department reversed course on their decision to ban the alleged heckler, claiming they could find no distinct evidence linking the fan to the abuse.

“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),” officials wrote. “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.”

They also stated “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.”

In my opinion, this inquiry was not carried out with either transparency or the proper protocol necessary for this kind of investigation. Universities use different protocols for different investigations. For example, Title IX investigations involving student sexual assault, sexual harassment, and rape allegations require schools to use a less rigorous “preponderance of evidence” standard of proof (i.e., it is “more likely than not” that the respondent committed sexual harassment or violence). Think of this as “50 percent plus 1 confidence” that somebody acted a certain way or did a certain thing.

Was the information collected from witnesses considered “[…] evidence meet[ing] the preponderance standard […]” of Title IX? If two witnesses claimed they heard the slurs, but the rest of the team didn’t — possibly due to positioning on the court — do those two testimonies carry the same weight under the protocol they used? Not likely.

The university knows how to conduct a proper Title IX probe. They’ve got the steps for it outlined on their website, but they didn’t consider Richardson’s investigation a Title IX case. In the absence of that standard, inquiries like this can’t be thorough, unbiased, or transparent, and the sloppy conclusion they reached is now tainting the sports world against the victim.

Sports personalities like ESPN commentator, Stephen A. Smith, and former Utah football player and current BYU graduate student, Batchlor Johnson IV, and others have spoken about this incident. Smith argued the university was careful not to call Richardson a liar, but also believed the conclusion of their report.

“She says she heard what she heard,” Smith said. But then he tacked on that Black people are “Not doing ourselves any favors if we bring [racism] up […] when it doesn’t exist. … When we’re willing to jump to race too quickly, we dilute the profound argument of racism and prejudice when it really occurs because people are hearing it so much, they think we’re whistling into the wind.”

Smith’s garbled statement did everything but directly call Richardson a liar.

Johnson’s message was no less contradictory. In a video posted on his Twitter account, he recalled his personal experiences with racism within America, while simultaneously calling Richardson wrong.

“Has BYU fans used racist rhetoric towards Black players from other teams? Yes,” he said. “[…] I witnessed it towards Jason Chile and Tyler Hundley. […] I also believed, on the other side of this, that it could not have happened.”

These sentiments are disappointing, but not surprising.

I’m a Black woman who has been called slurs in an athletic environment. And when I spoke up, people questioned my judgement and character. They asked, “are you sure that’s what you heard?” and “are you sure they were talking to you?” These questions invalidated my experience and now they seek to do the same to Richardson, a Black woman playing a sport where only 6.8% of its players are Black.

I want BYU’s investigation to be thorough and impartial, and I want it to ensure both sides are heard and acknowledged, and that truth is undoubtedly sought.

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