America at Large: The mysterious case of the disappearing racist heckler

Duke’s lone African American starter in a volleyball match alerted her coach to someone racially abusing her

The strange and mysterious case of the disappearing racist heckler. More than 5,000 shoehorned into Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, Utah to watch their beloved Brigham Young Cougars take on Duke University in women’s volleyball on the last Friday in August.

At one point during a raucous affair, a police officer was assigned to stand in front of the home fans following complaints about them abusing the visiting players. Rachel Richardson, Duke’s lone African American starter, had alerted her coach to somebody in the student section calling her the “N” word as she served from back court.

“They heckled throughout the entire game,” said Richardson. “You get used to playing through extreme environments like that. And very distinctly though, you know, I heard a very strong and negative racial slur. Then the next time I went back to serve, I heard it extremely clear again. But that was the end of the game so we switched sides.”

Next day, Brigham Young’s athletic director, Tom Holmoe, met Richardson to apologise on behalf of the host institution for what she had to endure. The BYU coach, Heather Olmstead, also issued a public statement condemning the incident and admitted: “We must do better.”

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She has since been the subject of death threats. That same day, the university announced one fan (who was not a current student) had been banned from all campus athletic venues and asserted it was pursuing a “zero-tolerance approach to such behaviour.” So far, so straightforward.

Not everybody in the wider BYU community appeared to be on board with the official reaction. A few online sleuths in search of exonerating evidence pored over the video of the game as if it was volleyball’s own Zapruder film. There was speculation too that the accused racist heckler was autistic or was merely shouting at friends of his on the home team. It’s not explained how cheering them on would have involved the “N” word.

The university is named for its founder, Brigham Young, second president of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and the fieldhouse honours one of his successors in that role, George Albert Smith, a character who felt intermarriage between black and white was “repugnant to most normal minded people”.

With 98 per cent of students Mormon, Brigham Young remains a devoutly religious institution where students pledge to abstain from premarital sex, alcohol, smoking, vaping and caffeine. A strict one earring per ear policy is enforced and women students have been turned away from testing centres for wearing leggings. While members of other faiths are welcome to enrol, any Mormon who abandons the religion during their student years is immediately expelled.

After interviewing 50 people who were at the game, they decided nothing happened. Nobody said anything. Which means they are also alleging Rachel Richardson either lied about the whole thing or misheard what was being shouted at her. More than once.

The student body also happens to be 81 per cent white and less than one per cent African American. Many prominent buildings on campus are still named for celebrated slaveholders and, just last year, a report conducted by faculty at the school concluded that black students there feel “isolated and unsafe”.

They have nowhere to go to lodge complaints about discrimination, even though most admit to enduring bigoted comments on a near daily basis. One contributor described his experience thus, “I got baptised in racism in BYU.” Context is important in this unseemly episode because last weekend the college announced that its internal investigation into the incident at the volleyball match came to a rather startling conclusion.

“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,” went the report.

“As we stated earlier, we would not tolerate any conduct that would make a student-athlete feel unsafe. That is the reason for our immediate response and our thorough investigation. As a result of our investigation, we have lifted the ban on the fan who was identified as having uttered racial slurs during the match. We have not found any evidence that that individual engaged in such an activity. BYU sincerely apologises to that fan for any hardship the ban has caused.”

After interviewing 50 people who were at the game, they decided nothing happened. Nobody said anything. Which means they are also alleging Rachel Richardson either lied about the whole thing or misheard what was being shouted at her. More than once.

It also calls into question why the college took the initial incident seriously enough to move Duke’s subsequent game at that tournament to an off-campus venue elsewhere in Provo. Inevitably, their official conclusion has stoked social media fires and dragged Richardson into the ongoing culture wars. Especially when it emerged her godmother Lesa Pamplin, who tweeted about the incident, is a controversial figure running for election as a circuit court judge in Texas.

Accepting the Brigham Young report at face value, some of the more vituperative voices on the right are accusing the 19-year-old outside hitter of a hate crime, demanding her athletic scholarship be withdrawn, and she be expelled from the school. Many have compared her to Jussie Smollett, the troubled actor who feigned a racial and homophobic attack on himself in 2019. Without naming Richardson, Duke issued a strong statement responding to BYU, standing by its volleyball team, when “their character is called into question”, and asserting, “we do not tolerate hate and bias.”

One way or the other, something bad went down that night in Utah. The truth, as they used to say, would appear to be out there.