Timeline of BYU-Duke volleyball racism allegations, investigation and aftermath

BYU announced Friday it had completed its investigation but could not corroborate claims of racism at the Smith Fieldhouse last month.

(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.

BYU has completed its investigation into allegations of racism at a volleyball match last month. The university said it conducted an extensive investigation — which included reviewing game footage and surveillance video, and reaching out to some 50 people who were in attendance — but could not corroborate claims that Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson was called racist slurs during the match.

Here’s a timeline of what’s happened and what’s been alleged — culled from police reports, social media posts, personal interviews, television appearances, and official statements.

Friday, Aug. 26

• The BYU women’s volleyball team hosts Duke University at 7 p.m. MT, at Smith Fieldhouse. BYU reports 5,507 fans in attendance — a school record for women’s volleyball.

• In the second set, the Duke team is situated on the end of the court in front of the BYU student section, known as the “Roar of Cougars,” or ROC. With BYU leading 6-3, it is Richardson’s turn to serve. She will later recount to ESPN’s Holly Rowe that what began as garden-variety heckling became something else in that moment: “Very distinctly I heard a very strong and negative racial slur.”

• Once the set is over and the teams begin to trade sides of the court, Richardson says she approaches a teammate she is close with and tells her that a fan yelled the N-word at her. The teammate suggests they immediately tell the coaching staff.

• Duke’s coaching staff informs the game officials of what has transpired, and the game officials inform BYU staffers present at the match. A BYU police officer, who was assigned to work the match, will later write in an official report (obtained by The Tribune via a public records request): “During the third set of the match, I was advised by [redacted] with Athletics that a racial comment was made to the Duke Volleyball players. I was told the racial comment came from the BYU ROC students who were standing behind the Duke Players.”

• The officer says he made his way to the student section to speak with the “ROC president.” He advises her that the Duke players have complained of racial slurs being used, and asks for her assistance in identifying the culprit. The ROC president says she has not personally heard any abusive language, but promises to place people she trusts throughout the ROC to listen for comments.

• The officer then takes up position near the Duke bench. Duke players in the match are now on the opposite side of the court from the ROC. Richardson serves three times in the third set.

• The officer writes that in the break between the third and fourth sets, he is approached by a fan who inquires about his presence near the Duke bench and asks if anything is wrong. The officer repeats the complaint about the racial slurs. The fan, who says he has four friends on the BYU team, says he has not heard any abusive language, and keeps engaging the officer in conversation.

• Richardson later tells Rowe that, in the fourth set, with Duke’s players once again near the ROC, “it was almost as if the atmosphere of the student section had changed” to become collectively aggressive. “Even my Black teammates on the bench who don’t play, they were being called out and pointed at. It was really confusing as to why.”

• Richardson serves twice more in the fourth set. The officer writes that he observes some students yelling out first names of Duke players, “trying to distract the Duke players.” He writes that he only personally hears the names “Lizzy” and “Christina” being yelled out as players served. He subsequently notes that “Lizzy” [senior middle blocker Lizzie Fleming] “is a Caucasian player” while “Christina [Barrow] is an African American player.” He notes that he has not heard any abusive comments, nothing of a sexual or racist nature.

• After the match ends in a 3-1 BYU victory, the officer leaves the court and heads back to the referees’ locker room, asking if they require any assistance or need an escort out of the arena. After a time, he is told they do not require anything from him. The officer notes that when he returns to the court, a Duke assistant coach approaches him and says that while the officer was away after the match, a fan “got in the face” of Richardson, and she felt uncomfortable. Richardson’s godmother, Lesa Pamplin, alleges in her Twitter post the next day that Richardson “was threatened by a white male that told her to watch her back.”

• The Duke assistant coach points out the person in question, whom the officer recognizes as the fan he conversed with during the game. The officer and an unnamed BYU official approach the fan and tell him he was accused of using “the ‘N’ word” toward Duke players. The fan, who is a Utah Valley University student, denies using racist language, saying the only thing he said to Duke players was to stop hitting the ball into the net. He acknowledged approaching Richardson, but said it was only because he mistook her for one of his friends from the BYU team. The officer takes the student’s information and escorts him off the campus, advising him not to attend Duke’s match slated for the next day, and suggesting that if he plans to attend BYU’s next match, not to sit in the student section. The fan agrees.

• The officer returns to Smith Fieldhouse and converses with some BYU volleyball coaches and staffers. They inform him their Duke counterparts are upset with him for taking no action during the fourth set, when they allege their Black athletes were being targeted for abuse. He reiterates that he heard no racial language during that time. The officer then asks a BYU assistant coach to provide him with some game footage. Together, they watch the film during the instances in the second set when Richardson says the slur was yelled at her. During the first serve, the fan in question is not present at his spot near the Duke bench; during her second serve, the fan “was on his phone and didn’t appear to be paying attention to the game.” The officer adds, “There was nothing seen on the game film that led me to believe [redacted] was the person who was making comments to the player who complained about being called the ‘N’ word.”

• BYU officials nevertheless decide to ban the fan from attending BYU events indefinitely while further investigation is carried out. The officer calls the fan to inform him; the fan says he understands, but reiterates his innocence.

• The Duke team, worried about the atmosphere at BYU, holds a discussion about whether to play in the next day’s game at Smith Fieldhouse against Rider. The officer writes that Bernard Muir, the Stanford University athletic director who was in attendance to watch his daughter Millie play for Duke, advocates for the Blue Devils to play. (The Muirs are Black, though the officer notes he was unable to ask Millie Muir if she heard any racist comments.)

Saturday, Aug. 27

• Richardson’s godmother, Pamplin, brings the situation to the attention of the masses when she tweets that Richardson “was called a n— every time she served.” (Richardson served eight times in all during the match, according to the official play-by-play.) The veracity of Pamplin’s claim is immediately questioned by some, who dig up prior questionable posts from her social media (now made private) in a bid to discredit her, and reference her candidacy for Tarant County (Texas) Criminal Court 5 Judge as a possible motive to present a fictional controversy.

• The decision is made to move the Duke-Rider game off-campus. Duke athletic director Nina King issues a statement: “First and foremost, our priority is the well-being of Duke student-athletes. They should always have the opportunity to compete in an inclusive, anti-racist environment which promotes equality and fair play. Following extremely unfortunate circumstances at Friday night’s match at BYU, we are compelled to shift today’s match against Rider to a different location to afford both teams the safest atmosphere for competition.”

• Richardson meets with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe to discuss the incident. Her father Marvin Richardson expresses frustration to The Salt Lake Tribune that BYU did not act swiftly enough in his view to identify and remove the offender.

• BYU announces that it “has banned a fan who was identified by Duke during Friday night’s volleyball match from all BYU athletic venues.” In a statement, BYU says it “spent hours reviewing video of the event, speaking with our event management and security staffs to try and figure out what exactly occurred and how it might’ve happened. This behavior cannot be acceptable.”

• Duke wins its match vs. Rider, and BYU wins its match vs. Washington State. Holmoe addresses the Smith Fieldhouse crowd before the Cougars’ match, noting that there were “egregious and hurtful slurs” directed at the Duke team. “… We fell short. We didn’t live up to our best.”

Sunday, Aug. 28

• Rachel Richardson, having flown back to Durham, N.C., tweets out a statement, saying that during Friday’s match at BYU, “my fellow African American teammates and I were targeted and racially heckled throughout the entirety of the match. The slurs and comments grew into threats which caused us to feel unsafe.” She also blasts BYU for failing to act in a timely manner upon being made aware of the incident.

• BYU volleyball coach Heather Olmstead puts out a public statement saying that she has had “productive conversations” with Richardson, as well as Duke’s team captain and head coach. “They have helped me understand areas where we can do better.” Holmoe adds a defense of his coach regarding the criticism of Olmstead not taking part in the Saturday morning meeting, saying, “I was the one who made the decision to represent BYU.”

Monday, Aug. 29

• Holmoe gives an interview on CNN to discuss the incident, noting that one fan has been banned and that the university is working to discover if there were other perpetrators. He said the university has been extensively reviewing footage from the BYUtv broadcast, and asked for any fans who took video from the Friday game to share it, or for anyone with knowledge of the incident to come forward. Holmoe adds that, in addition to the officer, BYU deployed four ushers into the stands in an effort to locate the offender, but they were unsuccessful.

• BYU Police file a report noting that at 6:31 p.m. on Sunday, “a threatening voicemail was left on a BYU Athletic coach’s voice mail.” The report does not specify which coach or the nature of the threat.

Tuesday, Aug. 30

An interview between Holly Rowe and Rachel Richardson is broadcast on ESPN. Richardson says as the match went on, “the racial slurs and heckling, it just grew more extreme, more intense.” She adds that she “very much felt heard and seen” by Holmoe in their meeting, and that he was genuinely hurt and shocked by the incident.

• BYU police announce that, after an initial investigation, it is their belief that the fan who was banned was not the one to yell racial slurs at Richardson. BYU Police Lt. George Besendorfer added that his department was no longer reviewing footage from the match, and further review has been taken over by BYU athletics and the school’s communication administration. Associate Athletic Director Jon McBride issued a statement noting that, “Various BYU Athletics employees have been reviewing video from BYUtv and other cameras in the facility that the volleyball team has access to for film review.” The investigation is ongoing.

Thursday, Sept. 1

BYU volleyball hosts Utah State at the Smith Fieldhouse. BYU officials have begun to implement some changes: The Aggies receive a security escort as they enter the venue, and the student section has been pulled off the floor and placed into the upper deck seating above the court.

Friday, Sept. 2

• South Carolina women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley announces that her program is canceling a home-and-home series scheduled with BYU as a result of the allegations of racism. “As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley says in a statement. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

South Carolina was set to host the Cougars this November, and to visit Provo during the 2023-24 season. There are currently no plans to reschedule the series.

Friday, Sept. 9

• BYU issues a statement, announcing it has concluded its investigation into the incident. The university says it: “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 also reached out to more than 50 people who attended the event, BYU says, including “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.”

BYU says it cannot corroborate the claims of racism at the match and will reinstate the fan who had been banned. “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.

• Duke issues its own statement in support of Richardson.

“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.”