After BYU racism allegations, experts say a more robust conversation about fan behavior still needs to take place

Increase in high-profile incidents at sporting events highlights a problem in need of a solution.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tom Holmoe at BYU football media day in Provo on Wednesday, June 22, 2022.

BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe paced the floor at the Smith Fieldhouse and delivered a message to not just the thousands of fans in attendance that night, but also to the millions who have since read or heard his remarks.

“As children of God, we are responsible. It is our mission to love one another and treat everybody with respect,” Holmoe said, “and that didn’t happen. We fell very short.”

Duke volleyball Rachel Richardson has said a fan repeatedly called her the N-word while she was serving in a game at BYU’s Smith Fieldhouse.

Even as Brigham Young University concluded its investigation into that August volleyball match, determining it could not corroborate the allegations, experts believe that a larger discussion about racism and fan behavior still needs to take place.

“Our fight is against racism, not against any individual or any institution,” BYU said in a statement announcing the results of its investigation. “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.”

In Utah alone, though, there have been a number of high-profile incidents of fans being accused of using racist language at sporting events.

“Fans, in some respects, think they can say whatever they want to athletes,” said Jen Fry, an expert in social justice, race and diversity. “Fans right now think that athletes are meant for their entertainment. And if that entertainment is not doing what they want, then they can say or do anything.”

This type behavior has escalated in recent years, Fry said, and it is a problem that has touched sports across Utah and the country.

In 2019, NBA star Russell Westbrook said a Utah Jazz fan made a “racial” taunt during a game. At a Jazz playoff game last year, several fans were banned after saying “racially vulgar” comments toward the family of Memphis star Ja Morant.

At high school games, there have been a number of instances of racist taunts.

Fry underscored that at sporting events, people can sometimes think the societal rules of common social practices are suspended. They may say or do something that normally is inexcusable — and those around them fail to speak up.

The past two years — since the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset — have highlighted that. At a New York Knicks playoff game, a fan spat on Atlanta point guard Trae Young. At a Los Angeles Lakers game, LeBron James was harassed by a fan until the basketball superstar asked police to remove the individual.

Richardson, a sophomore at Duke, has asked that more students receive training and education to help improve fan behavior at sporting events.

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

“We, as athletes, we do have access and we do have mandatory training in things like this; we get training on what to do in case of sexual assault, in case of racism, in all types of things that a lot of students, sadly, aren’t trained, are not educated on,” Richardson told ESPN. “So when things like this happen, they don’t know what to do, they don’t know how to stop it, they don’t know how to react. So more often than not, you have that bystander effect come into play, where they’re just like ‘I’m going to stay out of it.’”

Fry, who often trains athletic teams, noted that most teams do not get training on what to do about such fan behavior. There is no guidebook saying the game should be stopped until the fan is kicked out.

Another measure Fry discussed was having the fans removed in proximity to the players. She said most racial incidents occur because of how close fans can be to the action.

She noted that fans do not necessarily have to shout a racial slur to be heard by an athlete. They could say it quite low if they were close enough, thus also avoiding retribution from other fans because they might not have been able to hear it as distinctly. Yet, the player still heard it.

“If fans are really close to athletes in heated games, things can be said,” Fry said. “I think the assumption first is that everyone in the stands hears it. When people do that, they know that if they scream it out loud there will be problems. Which is why they aren’t going to say something so that many people can hear it.”

Holmoe, in the aftermath of the BYU-Duke game, encouraged fans to intervene if they hear something.

“I ask that everyone at any of our games who represents BYU, that you will have the courage to take a stand and be able to take care of each other and, more importantly,” he said, “the guests, our guests, who we invite to come play here.”

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