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The racism on display at Brigham Young Friday fits a historical pattern

Black athletes in the 1960s and '70s boycotted games and meets on the BYU campus in Utah.
Image: Two hands trying to grab a volleyball.
Black women volleyball players from Duke University say they were “targeted and racially heckled throughout the entirety of the match" they played against Brigham Young University Friday.MSNBC / Getty Images

UPDATE (Sept. 23, 2022 1:45 p.m. E.T.): An investigation by Brigham Young University found no evidence to corroborate the claims made by Duke University student athletes that they were racially harassed. Duke University continues to stand behind its students. Read BYU's updated statement here.

Over the weekend, the spotlight was on NCAA women’s volleyball, for the worst possible reasons. Duke University sophomore Rachel Richardson was playing at a tournament in the Brigham Young University field house when things turned ugly. As Richardson said in a statement on Sunday, she and the other Black Duke players were “targeted and racially heckled throughout the entirety of the match."

Richardson spoke to feeling “unsafe” and having to “struggle just to get through the rest of the game.”

The heckling fan was not removed by security. A police officer had to be stationed by the Duke bench. The N-word was used repeatedly according to a viral twitter post from Richardson’s godmother, Leslie Pamplin. In her statement, Richardson spoke to feeling “unsafe” and having to “struggle just to get through the rest of the game.”

Outrage ensued. At a packed field house on Saturday night, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said, "As children of God, we are responsible. It's our mission to love one another and treat everybody with respect, and that didn't happen. We fell very short.” What was more noticeable was what Holmoe didn’t say. He didn’t say the word “racism,” he didn’t explain why the incident was handled so poorly, and he didn’t say what steps would be taken to ensure the safety of Black student-athletes in the future.

The incident brought to mind how Black athletes in the 1960s and 1970s boycotted games and meets on the BYU campus in Utah in the name of human dignity. At the time, there was a widespread condemnation of the — quite literally — white supremacist politics of the Mormon Church. The church’s belief was that Black Mormons could not be ordained as lay priests because their dark skin was "the mark of the curse of Ham." The church also, not shockingly, opposed interracial marriage. This was their stance until 1978, when an edict was passed ending formal white supremacy in the church.

The collegiate athletes who brought attention to these politics in the late 1960s and 1970s through activism paid a heavy price. On Oct. 14, 1969, 14 Black players on the Wyoming University football team were kicked off the squad for requesting to be a part of a demonstration with the Black Student Alliance against the Latter Day Saints before an upcoming game against BYU. Coach Lloyd Easton said that Black 14, as they came to be called, were being dismissed for violating team rules against attending demonstrations and against “forming factions.” (The Black 14 and are now regarded as heroes, with a critically acclaimed Spike Lee-produced documentary to boot.)

BYU is the source of a multitude of stories like these. The University of Texas, El Paso, at the time one of the best track and field programs in the country, included future 1968 Olympian and long-jumping legend Bob Beamon. Nine of these scholarship athletes, including Beamon, were kicked off the team for refusing to play BYU. In “Race, Culture, and the Revolt of the Black Athlete,” author Douglas Hartmann wrote: “Every edition of the Track and Field News that spring contained at least a couple of snippets regarding incidents of protest or discontent among top-flight black trackmen.”

BYU is the source of a multitude of stories like these.

The point is that there is a legacy at BYU that, 50 years after the fact, still needs to be spiked. The school has been lightning quick to make clear that the racist taunter from this weekend, although seated in the student section, was not a student of the university. But that makes it almost worse; while this person dropped the N-word with every one of Richardson’s serves, where were the students telling him to shut up? Where was security?

Duke itself certainly has its own ugly history of racism in sports. It is utterly unacceptable that Duke Coach Jolene Nagel did not pull her entire team off the court until this had been dealt with and removed.

When I grew up playing rec ball, a white kid on the other team yelled a racial slur and my coach pulled us all off the field until there was an apology and ejection. That was 30 years ago so this isn’t some radical zoomer woke concept.

It appears that BYU has a past with which it refuses to reckon, meaning it has a present that still contains this element of rot. If there was ever a place that needed a reckoning, it is Brigham Young. And if this happens, it will be because a sophomore named Rachel Richardson and her teammates decided to be the only adults in the room.