Duke volleyball player Rachel Richardson recounted how a series of racial slurs during a match last week at BYU turned into a national news story and reflected on how it’s changed her life in an interview with ESPN’s Holly Rowe that aired Tuesday.
Richardson posted a statement to Twitter on Sunday, two days after fans yelled racial slurs at her while she was serving. “No athlete, regardless of their race should ever be subject to such hostile conditions,” she wrote at the time. BYU banned a fan from all athletic venues on campus Saturday, a day after the match, and said the athletic department has a “zero-tolerance approach to this behavior.”
The fan was not a student but was sitting in the student section.
Richardson told Rowe that the incidents started in the second set when she was serving. She said she’s used to crowds trying to intimidate opposing players, but it was different that night.
“I heard a very strong, negative racial slur,” Richardson said. “… So I served the ball, got through the play. And then the next time I went back to serve, I heard it extremely clear again, but that was the end of the game.”
She said she told her coaches about the incident between games, and the teams switched ends of the floor. She said she saw her coaches talking with BYU officials, who she thought acted on the incident. “We were told someone was speaking to the student section and I was all right, so, and that was the end of it,” Richardson said. “And we played our third set on the opposite side of the net from them.”
In the fourth set, she said the “atmosphere of the student section had changed.” Richardson called the slurs and heckling from the crowd “more extreme, more intense.” She said the man who was eventually banned from BYU athletics was recording things on his phone and “we were just made very uncomfortable by him in particular.”
After the game, which BYU won three sets to one, Richardson returned to the team hotel. The Blue Devils’ next match, against Rider, was moved to another location.
Richardson praised BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, who she said came to talk with her at the team’s hotel the next morning.
“One thing I can say is he’s probably one of the most genuine people that I’ve ever met,” she said. “I very much so felt heard and felt seen during that conversation.
“I could see like how sorry he was and honestly shocked that it happened.”
Richardson said Holmoe told her he’d address the student section to “make players feel more comfortable in general.”
Holmoe said later that “I felt compelled to talk to our fans in attendance and address last night’s very unfortunate incident. Cougar Nation, we’ve got to be better, and we’ve got to have the courage to take care of each other and our guests at our BYU sporting events.”
BYU has implemented changes to its fan code of conduct, starting with a soccer match Monday. Volleyball fans also will not be seated behind the opponent on the baseline going forward.
Richardson has been in a whirlwind since the incident, returning to Duke to begin classes. She talked to Rowe after a finance class.
“I believe God puts you in places at certain times, near certain people for specific reasons,” Richardson said. “And I believe that and my teammates that, for some reason, my name was the one that blew up and I wholeheartedly [believe] that’s because God had a purpose behind it. And that purpose was that maybe he knew that I would be able to meet people with compassion. And I don’t want BYU to be singled out or looked at as a bad institution because of this one thing … that doesn’t represent the entire university of BYU.”
She knows that many will look at the Duke basketball student section, the Cameron Crazies, who are known to be among the toughest home crowds in sports. But she said things would be different at Duke.
“The minute something like this happened at a basketball game, you know, Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] shut the game down, went and got the mic and was like, if you’re doing that, you need to get out or [we’re] stopping the game,” Richardson said.
Holmoe told Rowe that BYU does conduct internal athletic department racial and equality education and is working on plans to expand to students and fans. He also said that, going forward, the school will empower coaches and student-athletes to stop a game and not proceed until issues are reviewed and action taken.
Richardson said in her Twitter statement that she didn’t want the game to be stopped because “I refused to allow those racist bigots to feel any degree of satisfaction from thinking that their comments had ‘gotten to me.’ So, I pushed through and finished the game.”
She told Rowe she was glad she made that decision.
“I believe that meeting anger with anger, it just starts a cycle of more anger,” Richardson said. “As a young Black woman in America, I know I don’t have the privilege of reacting all the time or else it paints that face of, oh, you’re just another angry Black woman and you know, my Black male counterparts, they also don’t have that privilege or else it’s just, oh, that’s just like an aggressive angry Black man.”
She said her parents taught her to “be aware of how you’re being perceived” and to be respectful.
“In the light of, oh, that’s just another Black person. Like, no, they have to look at me as of a person, as a person they’re forced to respect me,” Richardson said. “And that’s exactly what I wanted in that game. I could have turned around and I could have said nasty things back. I could have done anything. I could have been rude to the athletic director when he was kind enough to come speak to me in person.
“I could have been rude when I spoke to the BYU coach, but no, that doesn’t get you anywhere. I could be pointing fingers and saying like, I [want] BYU volleyball to be shut down. I want that win taken away from them. No, because that’s not going to get anybody anywhere. That’s not going to do anything. And that would, that would dial all of this back down into just one situation.”
Richardson added: “… It was just a bad situation that was handled badly. However people have apologized. We can move forward from it. Now we start being proactive. Now we start taking steps in the right direction. We can move on from it. You know, I already told the coach and the athletic director, you know, I forgive you and it wasn’t your fault that it happened. It was your fans. So you didn’t do anything to wrong me.”
Richardson said she’s heard from volleyball players and other athletes and students at BYU.
“I don’t even want them to feel embarrassed by it,” she said. “Like, it’s unfortunate that it happened there, but the fact that they’re comfortable enough to reach out to me and let me know that they’re still in support of me, just shows to prove like how good of people they truly are.”