I spent three years as an Assistant Gymnastics Coach at an NCAA Division I institution from 2016 to 2019. I was fresh out of college with my bachelor’s degree from an extremely diverse university and the youngest full-time NCAA Gymnastics coach in the Nation at 22 years old in 2016.
I had joined this program in early October 2016, as the team was weeks away from the annual Halloween Intrasquad. Many programs around the country decide to make this the first public showing of skills and make it themed for Halloween. There were ideas tossed around in my first week at practice at the end of practice and one of them was “Cowboys vs. Indians.” I immediately spoke up stating, “Maybe let’s not do that, as it’s 2016 and dressing as Indians is racist and not acceptable.” I was not alone, other team members spoke up stating that this is racist and should not be done. We were simply brushed off by the Head Coach and others, being told it’s “not a big deal” and it’s just an “innocent costume.” The Head Coach held a vote for the gymnasts and coaches about the costumes. I, along with other team members, including black gymnasts voted opposing any Indian costumes. Several members of the team voted for this costume, and the student athletes that were against it, were forced to dress up as Indians. Anyone against it, was made to feel as though they were the ones being racist and overly sensitive. The black gymnasts and the ones that spoke up about the blatant racism were silenced.
For the intrasquad, the team was split up as “Cowboys vs. Indians,” with all the black gymnasts in the program on the “Indians” team and the “Cowboys” were only white gymnasts. These teams were specifically assigned by the Head Coach and no gymnasts were able to choose which costume they were forced to wear. Then a photo was required to be taken and posted on Instagram with the “Cowboys” pointing guns at the “Indians” and a black gymnast holding her hands up. The recap of this intrasquad is still published on the athletics website stating the team was “Cowboys vs. Indians.” I know the black gymnasts were in pain the entire time they had to experience this, forced to dress this way, and take photos that were posted to social media. This is an example of institutional racism towards Native Americans and blacks, as the Head Coach, intentionally assigned the black gymnasts to the oppressed side, the Indians, while also forcing these young women to dress up in a culturally appropriated racist costume. This was something that these black student athletes were highly offended by and against in all facets of this week long event.
Back in 2004, this institution went through the process of changing the mascot name as they were previously known as the Indians for decades. This change came about when an NCAA bylaw passed in the early 2000s stating any university with a Native American mascot/name would not be able to compete for an NCAA Championship. This caused a swift change over the next few years across the NCAA mascot landscape. There still are a couple around, like Florida State Seminoles, Utah Utes, and Central Michigan Chippewas, but they needed approval from local tribes to be able to keep the mascot name (they had to cut a check to these tribes to be able to keep the mascot names).
The audacity that an administration and an experienced Head Coach had no issue with the team dressing as Indians, posting photos to social media, which is all still publicly accessible, is astounding. I am calling attention to this issue on a public platform as I tried standing up to this racism back in October 2016, but was shutdown.
The following year, October 2017, the team is back debating at practice about what they should do as the theme for the Halloween Intrasquad. Many wanted to do “Cops vs. Robbers,” I vehemently expressed that we should not do ANYTHING involving guns, because I wanted to prevent any opportunities for a similar situation to occur again. I was then told by the Head Coach that I was, “too sensitive” and that I was “being such a Yankee,” because I was raised in the Northeast Region of the country.
Later in that week, there was a discussion of potentially doing the intrasquad as the Ghostbusters. One of the black gymnasts on the team asked what do the Ghostbusters wear, the Head Coach mumbled under her breath loud enough for the black gymnast to hear, “Orange jumpsuits, just like you and your boyfriend will be wearing in a few years.” Practice had ended, just as the comment was made, I was shocked that something like that would be stated. I wish I did more in the moment, but that student-athlete had the courage to go to administration, which launched an investigation in the following weeks.
Another moment in the previous year, I had been asked in a one-on-one meeting with this Head Coach, “Why do I only ever have issues with black girls on the team? I never have issues with the girls that go to church.” I was in the second month of my first full-time job out of college and didn’t have the courage to say, “Maybe you are the problem, not them.” I had a little more courage to speak out against the public displays of racism in my second year to prevent another Halloween Intrasquad fiasco with “Cops vs. Robbers.”
This Head Coach was relieved of her duties at the conclusion of the investigation in December 2017.
Throughout my second and third year coaching at this program, I witnessed multiple instances of ignorance from student athletes thinking it was acceptable to sing the N-word in a song. I had given multiple speeches to these student athletes explaining how offensive this word is, and that it is deeply rooted in racism. I was told, “but my black friends gave me permission.” I then would express that there is no such thing as a “pass” for a racist term. I would remind this group as much as possible when the N-word was sang in a song. Throughout the months I observed a decline in the use of this word when they would sing along to music (around me at least).
Then in my final year the new Head Coach thought is was acceptable to sing the N-word in a song on the team bus. She blatantly ignored the racism of the word, along with all the progress that had been made expressing to these young women that it is NEVER ACCEPTABLE to say the N-word. Here is a woman in a leadership role that is saying the N-word, and letting her student athletes think this is acceptable behavior. From that point on, when I would remind the gymnasts they should never say the N-word, some student athletes would say, “but (Head) Coach says it.”
There are still symbols of racism on the official gymnastics team Instagram account, and the article from that day of the 2016 Halloween Intrasquad is still posted. These need to be removed, and acknowledging there has been racism in the past. More needs to be addressed by the university & Athletics Department on this current Human Rights Issue of racism in this country, the NCAA, and at this Institution. I have reached out to the Athletic Director of this institution’s Athletic Department letting them know that there are still public displays of racism on official team social media accounts and the athletic department’s website.
These incidents were witnessed and experienced by me, first hand. The former black student athletes I had the privilege of coaching, have expressed that these are not isolated incidents and were just a few of many occurrences. Black gymnasts had experienced many racist comments throughout the years from many different people at the university on a routine basis, and this continued to occur even after they confronted the offenders about it.
I am not here to call out any individuals. The student athletes that were young and naive, should take this opportunity to reflect on these events. I hope that all of us can recognize what might have been said or done that was offensive to black student athletes. The institution and people in leadership roles need to recognize they have failed these student athletes.
These are issues that need to brought to the forefront and not buried in the past. This is how we can start the process of change, start a discussion, listen to experiences that people of color have gone through and are going through. I believe people can change and recognize their mistakes from the past and become educated and be better. The change must start from within, recognize your faults from the past, learn from them, and extend apologies to those you have hurt and let them know you are growing and learning. I have started this myself a few years ago, and still reflect to this day.
To all my former black student athletes, black student athletes across the NCAA, and to all persons of color, I stand with you, I am here to listen, advocate, and support, because BLACK LIVES MATTER.