BYU completes its investigation of allegations of racism at volleyball match, says no evidence found

In a statement Friday, the school also noted that it has lifted a ban on a fan who was accused of shouting the N-word.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans cheer during the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse in Provo for the volleyball match-up between Brigham Young University and Utah State University, Sept. 1, 2022. BYU said on Friday, Sept. 9, 2022, that it could not corroborate claims that a Duke volleyball player was called the N-word during a match on Aug. 26.

Brigham Young University has concluded its investigation into allegations of racism at a volleyball match last month, saying it could not corroborate claims that a Duke player was called the N-word.

In a statement Friday, the private Provo school said it thoroughly reviewed surveillance video from the game and has “not found any evidence” that a fan screamed slurs at Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson as she had reported she heard “very distinctly.”

It’s a reversal for BYU, which had not previously doubted the veracity of Richardson’s account, though many had pilloried her on social media for weeks.

“There will be some who assume we are being selective in our review,” the statement from BYU added. “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.”

The accusations of racism among its fans had thrust BYU into the national spotlight and divided the community. On Aug. 27, the day after the match against Duke on the Provo campus, Richardson’s godmother first posted on social media that the player had been called racist names.

Duke’s athletic department said it will continue to stand with Richardson after BYU’s investigation closed.

“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,” Duke athletic director Nina 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.”

Richardson’s godmother, who first made the allegations public in a post on Twitter, also issued a statement strongly in support of the Duke volleyball player.

“BYU’s statement today does not change my position,” Lesa Pamplin said. “In fact, the statement and the ‘findings’ are in keeping with what I — and many others — anticipated. Daily across America, the burden of proof — in instances like these involving people of color, as well as marginalized people, economically disadvantaged people, and disempowered people — is shifted unfairly and without hesitation.

“It is an unfortunate, but tried and true, mechanism used to discredit others while simultaneously deflecting from us getting down to the business of dealing with the legacies of our past so that we can all move authentically and holistically forward as a nation.”

Last week, another school canceled a basketball matchup against BYU, citing safety concerns for its players. And BYU athletics officials stepped forward to adamantly disavow racism and take action to address it.

That included banning the fan who was identified by Duke as having approached a player after the game, making her uncomfortable, and for allegedly yelling the slurs. The discipline unraveled, though, when BYU campus police said in a report that they had reviewed surveillance footage from the match and the banned fan didn’t appear to be yelling any slurs.

In the statement Friday, the school said it has reinstated that fan.

“BYU sincerely apologizes to that fan for any hardship the ban has caused,” the university said.

As part of its investigation, BYU said it looked at all video and audio available, including both surveillance footage and game tape from BYUtv. The school said it also removed the broadcasting commentary “to ensure that the noise from the stands could be heard more clearly.”

BYU said it additionally reached out to 50 people who attended the event, including Duke staff and student-athletes, BYU athletics personnel and student-athletes, security staff and fans.

The school reiterated in its statement that it “would not tolerate any conduct that would make a student-athlete feel unsafe.” And it said it remains committed to “zero-tolerance of racism.”

“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,” the statement added.

The findings from BYU, which is operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, come the day before it is set to have its first home football game of the season, playing Baylor University on Saturday night.

Reports from the volleyball match

Both Richardson and her father have spoken publicly about what the player has described as an onslaught of taunting.

Richardson, who is the lone Black starter on Duke’s team, has said she heard a “very strong and negative racial slur” come from the student section at BYU while she was serving. In a statement on her Twitter account, she said she felt unsafe during the game and questioned the response from officials. She has also recounted the events to ESPN.

Richardson said she alerted the Duke coaching staff immediately after hearing the slurs in the second set. At that point, Duke coaches told both the officials and the BYU coaches, she said.

The police report from the school, though, was at odds with Richardson’s telling of what happened.

According to BYU police, administrators from BYU told a campus police officer about the issue during the third set of the match and elected to put an officer near the Duke bench before the fourth set. No one identified the person making the slurs at that time, the officer said.

But while Richardson said the slurs grew during the fourth set, the officer reported that he didn’t hear anything inappropriate while he was visibly standing there, listening.

The police department said no students have come forward to report hearing someone near them shout the slurs. And no other players on Duke’s team have talked about it.

One reserve player told The News & Observer in North Carolina that she did not personally hear anything being yelled.

Duke freshman Christina Barrow, who along with Richardson is one of four Black players on the team, said: “Rachel was the first one who told all of us. 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.”

No other players have spoken publicly about the incident.

Reaction to the findings

Some have suggested that the volleyball case cannot be used as a litmus test for issues with race at the religious school — regardless of if the slurs did or did not get yelled at the game. BYU still has blindspots that need to be addressed outside of that, they say.

The school released a report in February 2021, that found students of color often feel “isolated and unsafe as a result of their experiences with racism at BYU.” It cited that students reported hearing slurs daily and some transferred to another university as a result.

BYU’s Black Menaces, a group on campus that has been trying to fight racism there, has pointed to that report as evidence of a need to address systemic issues at the church-operated school that has a student body that is 81% white.

“As white supremacy lives on here at BYU and across the country, we will not stop in our efforts to highlight, denounce and systematically change the environments that allow for and produce apathetic individuals on our campus,” they have said in a statement about the volleyball incident.

The school’s Black students have also previously spoken out against the names of buildings on the campus that honor slaveholders. And at least one event in spring 2020 was disrupted and then ended after the audience flooded an online platform with racist questions, like “Why don’t we have any white people on stage?”

BYU head football coach Kalani Sitake — the first head coach of color in the program’s history — spoke out after the Duke volleyball match and called on people to see the wider issue of racism.

“Our culture on this team is love and learn,” Sitake said. “We follow Christ and talk about love one another. That is one of our main mottos on the team. It means to love everybody and be inclusive of everybody.”

The reaction to the volleyball allegations have extended far beyond BYU’s campus. Many public figures who spoke out initially, both in support of Richardson and against her, have issued new statements.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, who initially condemned BYU’s response to the incident, came out in support of BYU on Friday morning.

“After recently reported allegations of racism, I followed BYU’s own statement and condemned the incident in the strongest possible terms,” he wrote on Twitter. “Subsequently it appears that neither the school, media, law enforcement or anyone else in the arena has been able to confirm these allegations.

“I will always speak out strongly against racism. I also believe it is important to step back and acknowledge new facts as they come to light as well,” he continued.

The issue had become a cultural flashpoint in the country. Many conservative pundits on Fox News, and other major outlets, doubted Richardson’s claims immediately.

Will Cain, a former ESPN pundit and now Fox News employee, called into question the source of her allegations.

“Any potentiality has been explored except for one: That it simply did not happen,” Cain said on Fox News. “... A conspiracy theory is a claim with no evidence. It is not the rejection of the claim with no evidence.”

The full-throated response has been equal in support of Richardson as well. Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player and now ESPN analyst, said he will support Richardson after BYU’s investigation.

“We stand with and up for Rachel Richardson,” Bilas wrote on Twitter.

BYU committed in its statement to continue to address racism on its campus.

“Our fight is against racism, not against any individual or any institution,” it said in the statement Friday.

On the volleyball incident, the school added: “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.”