Mother of autistic fan temporarily banned by BYU speaks out about son being wrongly accused of shouting slurs

In a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune, she says her son became a scapegoat. Now she’s calling for kindness.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Fans file into the George Albert Smith Fieldhouse in Provo for the volleyball match at Brigham Young University on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2022. The mother of the fan previously banned by BYU and accused of yelling racial slurs at a Duke player — though he was later found innocent — is speaking out.

A mother says her autistic son became a “scapegoat in a hurried attempt to calm the firestorm” after he was accused — wrongly — of yelling a racial slur at a Duke volleyball player.

For the first time, she is sharing her family’s perspective on what unfolded during the Aug. 26 match at Brigham Young University through a written statement to The Salt Lake Tribune.

Ultimately, the mother believes, the incident reflects bias in multiple forms — in how Duke player Rachel Richardson has been treated and also her son, who she said has physical and developmental challenges. Both, she says, are marginalized in different ways.

She hopes people will stop blaming her son for something he didn’t do, she wrote, and move forward with kindness and forgiveness.

The Tribune is not publishing the name of her son, who has been found innocent by BYU. And to avoid identifying him, the mother is also not being named.

Although BYU declined to verify their names, The Tribune reviewed two written communications provided by the family’s attorney that included BYU officials mentioning the fan by his name and his initials. The Tribune also verified the son is an enrolled student at UVU, as has been previously reported.

Richardson has said she heard the N-word shouted at her “very distinctly” from the BYU student section while she was serving. Her coaches told BYU officials, who stationed a police officer in front of the stands, but BYU says no individual was pointed out at that time.

Richardson said a fan approached her after the game and made her feel uncomfortable. She said that same fan was the one who yelled the slurs. After Duke coaches identified that fan — the mother’s son — to BYU, the university banned him “indefinitely” from future games. Duke’s athletics staff have said they stand by Richardson’s account.

But after BYU’s investigation found no evidence of racial slurs being shouted, and none coming from the identified fan, in particular, it reinstated him and apologized.

Here is his mother’s full statement:

As a mom, I don’t stand alone with my sadness over the lack of humanity in our society in which my children have to live. My oldest daughter decided life was not worth living and took her own life less than two years ago. In the horrific wake of our loss, my youngest son, who is the most optimistic, enthusiastic, individual I know despite his own personal challenges, was accused by the Duke women’s volleyball team of making racial remarks at the recent BYU/Duke volleyball game in Provo, Utah. (My son suffered from a brain hemorrhage at birth that caused an array of physical and developmental challenges. He has been labeled in the media as “mentally handicapped” which is absolutely false, and I will shout from the rooftop that he is brilliant and he has a mind and an intellect that few people will ever comprehend.) Despite the lack of evidence that my son was the perpetrator, BYU banned him, making him the scapegoat in a hurried attempt to calm the firestorm which quickly engulfed the BYU athletic department and the university. This all happened before midnight on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022 without much consideration for the collateral damage to my son.

After completing a thorough investigation of the events at the volleyball game between BYU and Duke, BYU issued a statement on Friday, Sept. 9, stating: “From our extensive review, we have not found any evidence to corroborate the allegation that fans engaged in racial heckling or uttered racial slurs at the event,” and “[w]e have not found any evidence that [my son] engaged in such an activity.” BYU “sincerely apologize[d] to [my son] for any hardship the ban has caused,” but did not apologize for its apparently unfounded rush to judgment. To my knowledge, Duke has not backed off its accusations that incorrectly implicated and continue to implicate my son in this horrific racial assault. My son remains at the mercy of the insipid spin of hate and anger that runs like a live-wire current through our society.

This is a cautionary tale with many hazard signs that we all should pause and reflect on — if not for my son, then for your own children and their children and for the “us” that is our shared humanness. This is a story about racial trauma to Rachel Richardson during that game and all the trauma inflicted on her over a lifetime that led to this moment. It is a story of the collective racial animus that permeates our society as a whole and how that animus informs how we treat each other. This is the story of two institutions, each with their own complicated racial histories, using my autistic son as a pawn to further their own agenda. It is a story of false accusations and rushed judgment and the destruction those false accusations cause in a young person’s life. This is a story about marginalized people in our society not being “seen” and how the labels we attach to people come loaded with negative assumptions. This is a story of bias and how our pre-constructed bias can lead us to judge another individual or group unfairly. Despite the many complicated and painful facets of this tale, it is my hope that it is ultimately a story of forgiveness and increased understanding as well as a catalyst for healing.

Racial tension is everywhere. We all feel it. As a white woman, I don’t know what it is like for a Black woman or a Black man in this country — I never will. But I am a white woman who knows that what I can do is always try to see others as individuals with their own stories, on a shared journey through this life without regard for race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identification or “disabilities” (I hate that word so much because nobody is “disabled,” we all are “uniquely abled”). I can’t change the past for all the wrongs that have been perpetuated against people of differing races and ethnicities by this country and even by my own religion (I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). I fully understand the complicated history my church has with race, and I can unequivocally say that I make no excuses for it nor do I defend my church for the way people of color were marginalized in the past.

My church continues to struggle with the marginalization of other groups, notably, all those who identify as LGBTQ+, and I am not afraid to say that I am at odds with my church’s position with its policies and doctrines that make it difficult for members of the LGBTQ+ community to fully engage with our church. But this place in history that I find myself in gives me the opportunity to try to move the needle in the direction of greater acceptance, more understanding and a deeper commitment to continuing change. I believe what Jesus taught in the New Testament saying “As I have loved you, love one another” (John 13:34). It is a simple mandate for each of us regardless of religious affiliation or non-affiliation.

During my son’s childhood and adolescence, he attended many “social therapy” groups. The objective of this type of therapy is to provide individuals (generally on the autism spectrum but not exclusively limited to that group) with social skills guidance and instruction and to facilitate and teach social awareness to those for whom social skills are inherently not intuitive. I remember the first time I heard the term “perspective taking” at one of his classes and how struck I was by my own need to improve upon that social skill. All of us, whether we are neurotypical or neurodivergent, need a course in “perspective taking.” I believe it would help us make strides toward understanding each other more fully, building bridges where we find wide chasms and repairing the acrimony in our society so that it is a place where our children and grandchildren can live without fear of being misunderstood, marginalized or mistreated.

My plea is for each of us to take the opportunities that exist in our lives every day as we interact with colleagues, neighbors, friends, family and especially strangers, to make an effort to “see” each other. We are all more alike than we are different, and we are inherently and deeply connected by our shared humanness with all the pain, mess and damage we have caused but also for all the beauty, joy and love that we can share. I hope as you open your hearts to understand and to “see” others, you will recognize yourself reflected back.