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Fan banned after allegedly hurling racist slurs and threats at Duke volleyball player during match in Utah

Rachel Richardson, a sophomore on Duke University's volleyball team, was called the n-word and warned to "watch her back" in the match Friday in Utah, her family said.
An NCAA volleyball before a match in Salem, Va., on April 24, 2021.
An NCAA volleyball before a match in Salem, Va., on April 24, 2021.Keith Lucas / NCAA Photos via Getty Images file

A Duke University women’s volleyball player was called racist slurs and threatened during a match against Brigham Young University in Utah on Friday, resulting in a fan being banned from sporting events, according to the student, her family and the school.

Rachel Richardson, a Black starter on Duke’s team, was called the n-word “every time she served,” and was threatened by “a white male that told her to watch her back going to the team bus,” her godmother Lesa Pamplin said on social media.

A police officer had to be placed by the Duke team's bench as a result of the alleged harassment, Pamplin said.

The game drew a crowd of more than 5,000 people at the Smith Fieldhouse in Provo, Utah.

Gloria Richardson, Rachel's mother, told NBC News her daughter called her crying Friday evening.

“To have our strong independent daughter call and cry …. it hurt. She didn’t feel safe,” she said. 

She said her daughter, a sophomore from Ellicott City, Maryland, initially didn't tell her parents or coach about the heckling. After the second match, the referees had a police officer come down. 

“She was incredibly fearful,” her mother said. “It was just really frightening for her, here you have over 5,500 people at this game all in Blue, she just felt singled out."

"Aside from the “N word”... she got constant boos whenever she served. Her white team mates didn’t get that. Her back was against the fans… and all she hears (sic) was her name and n-word. She didn’t turn around,” Gloria continued.

Rachel, an outside hitter, eventually got to meet with the BYU Athletic Director who said the suspect had been identified, and was described as not a BYU student but a guest of someone else. She was also assured it was one person who said the slur, according to Gloria.

BYU confirmed the incident Saturday, saying a fan, who is not a BYU student, has been banned from all athletic venues. 

“When a student-athlete or a fan comes to a BYU sporting event, we expect that they will be treated with love and respect and feel safe on our campus. It is for this reason BYU has banned a fan who was identified by Duke during last night’s volleyball match from all BYU athletic venues. Although this fan was sitting in BYU’s student section, this person is not a BYU student," the school said.

The school apologized to Duke University and its student athletes involved in the game. 

“To say we are extremely disheartened in the actions of a small number of fans in last night’s volleyball match ... is not strong enough language," the statement said. "Specifically, the use of a racial slur at any of our athletic events is absolutely unacceptable and BYU Athletics holds a zero-tolerance approach to this behavior,” the statement said. 

“We want BYU athletic events to provide a safe environment for all, and there is no place for behaviors like this in our venues,” the statement concluded. 

Richardson on Sunday addressed the incident on Twitter, calling out game officials for failing to stop the harassment. The post was shared by Duke volleyball's social media page.

“My fellow African American teammates and I were targeted and racially heckled throughout the entirety of the match. The slurs and comments grew into threats which caused us to feel unsafe,” she wrote. 

“Both the officials and BYU coaching staff were made aware of the incident during the game, but failed to take the necessary steps to stop the unacceptable behavior and create a safe environment,” she continued. “... No athlete, regardless of their race should ever be subject to such hostile conditions."

“It is neither my nor Duke Volleyball’s goal to call BYU athletics out but rather to call them up," Richardson wrote. "This is not the first time this has happened in college athletics and sadly it likely will not be the last time. However, each time it happens we as student athletes, coaches, fans, and administrators have a chance to educate those who act in hateful ways."

Following the Friday incident, Duke's Saturday game scheduled at the same BYU field house was moved to another location.

"Following extremely unfortunate circumstances at Friday night’s match at BYU, we are compelled to shift today’s match against Rider to a different location to afford both teams the safest atmosphere for competition," Duke Vice President & Director of Athletics Nina King said.

She added she's been in touch with the student-athletes "who have been deeply impacted" and "will continue to support them in every way possible."

Rider University's women’s volleyball team shared a message of support for Richardson ahead of their Saturday game, writing her jersey number on their wrists.

"As we prepare to play @DukeVB this afternoon, we stand in full support of Rachel. We play for #3 today. There is no place for racism on or off the court," the team said in a tweet.

At the start of Saturday’s game, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe addressed fans in attendance, condemning the "egregious and hurtful slurs" said at the prior match.

“I want you to know that this morning I visited with the young athlete on Duke’s team and her coach. If you would have met her, you would have loved her. But you don’t know her, and so you don’t feel that way,” he said.

“We fell very short. We didn’t live up to our best,” he said.

He urged BYU fans to "have the courage to take a stand" and look after guests invited to play there.  

Speaking to Cougar fans he said, "Cheer them on as loud as you can, but do not cross the line where you would hurt or harm anyone in any way."