BYU makes changes to address racism, fan behavior, but student reactions divided

Duke volleyball player Rachel Richardson said a fan at BYU called her racial slurs last week, putting BYU in the national spotlight.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans file into the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse in Provo for the volleyball match-up between Brigham Young University and Utah State University, September 1, 2022.

Provo • Less than a week after a Duke University volleyball player said she was called a racial slur during a match on BYU’s campus, a group of fans unfurled a banner to show their support here Thursday night.

“We stand with Coach Heather,” the sign read, a response to a report that BYU volleyball coach Heather Olmstead had received a threatening voicemail in the wake of the incident.

“I think it is really unfair that she is getting death threats,” said one of the young fans holding the banner. “Even if what was said happened, what could Heather do?”

What could have, should have and will be done differently at BYU has been a topic of national discussion since Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson said she was called the N-word by a fan in the Cougars’ student section last week.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alyssa Minor, left, and Emmy Pykles, both Ballard Center student leaders pass out stickers promoting diversity and belonging before the start of the volleyball match-up between Brigham Young University and Utah State University at the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, September 1, 2022.

BYU banned a Utah Valley student who Duke identified as the person who said the slur, but campus police and athletic department officials have since reviewed video footage from the night and said it does not appear that man yelled any slurs. BYU has not said it doubts the veracity of Richardson’s claims and it continues to investigate the matter.

In the meantime, the debate and divide that have featured prominently in the national discourse were also present at the Smith Fieldhouse.

“I was shocked but I wasn’t surprised when I heard it,” BYU student Tailey Quick said. “I think some in [our community] are talking about it and some are ignoring it. Some of our professors have said something. [Some are saying], ‘I’m sorry if you were hurt by it.’”

BYU officials have scrambled to implement immediate changes.

Thursday’s visitors, the Utah State volleyball team, walked past the women’s soccer field, around the old chain link fence that hugs the fieldhouse, past a number of BYU officials posted along their route from the team bus, and through a back entrance to get into the venue. All the while, a police officer walked behind them to monitor things.

Normally, the visiting teams at BYU simply get dropped off at the front door and walk right in with the rest of the students. But things aren’t normal here now.

There were other obvious security differences. The student section was pulled off the floor and placed into the upper deck seating above the court. A security guard was posted with both teams for the duration of the game. There was an additional officer roaming the arena.

But as the stands filled in with fans to root for their team, it was clear this is still a place divided in some ways. Some students expressed shock that racism could exist on their campus. Some expressed disappointment. Others said simply it would not be a surprise in the mostly white community.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Players pause at the start of the volleyball match-up between Brigham Young University and Utah State University, September 1, 2022.

“It was disappointing but not shocking,” BYU student Hannah Clark said.

The BYU volleyball team played a video before the game that talked about inclusion and treating opposing fans well. The team also wore a shirt that said “Love One Another” on the back.

BYU did not make coaches or players available to speak before or after the match.

On the court, the No. 7-ranked Cougars beat USU 3-0.

In the stands, there were many who likely still left disappointed

“I was disappointed in BYU’s response [to say it happened],” said a student named Jessica, who asked not to have her last name used for fear of retribution. “In this country, you are innocent until proven guilty. BYU admitted it happened.”