Skeptics dispute Duke volleyball player’s claim of taunts, but her account still rings true

Brigham Young University was part of another controversy about athletic crowd taunts over the weekend when some University of Oregon football fans made profane chants about Mormons during a game in Eugene, Ore.

This time, the taunts were documented on video.

No such evidence has surfaced in the Aug. 26 incident in which a Duke volleyball player said she was subjected to racial taunts while playing before a boisterous crowd of more than 5,500 at BYU in Utah. During the game, sophomore Rachel Richardson told her coaches about the heckling and a police officer took a place near the Duke bench.

Richardson later described the situation in a statement: “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.”

BYU athletics officials apologized for the incident and banned a person in the crowd who had been identified by Duke as making taunts. But after reviewing a video of the game and questioning more than 50 people who attended the event, BYU officials say they found no audio record of the racial taunts or spectators who said they heard what Richardson described. BYU retracted the ban on the accused spectator.

In response, Duke Athletics Director Nina King issued a statement in support of Richardson and the team. “We unequivocally stand with and champion them, especially when their character is called into question,” King said. “Duke Athletics believes in respect, equality and inclusiveness, and we do not tolerate hate and bias.”

Duke could have provided stronger support by being transparent about any review it performed and explaining why it stands by Richardson’s account.

The discrepancy between what Richardson reported and what BYU officials couldn’t corroborate has been seized on by conservative commentators and others. They argue that it’s further proof that many in the media report racial incidents that fit politically correct storylines without bothering to examine the facts.

Skeptics of Richardson’s account say it echoes the accusations in the Duke lacrosse case that drew national coverage before being found to be false. Others say the media credulously reported on Jussie Smollett’s claim of being the victim of a hate crime. The Black actor and singer, who is gay, told police he had been attacked outside his Chicago apartment by two men in ski masks who used racial and homophobic slurs and told him, “This is MAGA country.” Smollett was convicted of filing a false police report.

Conservative radio commentator and sports journalist Clay Travis said of the Duke-BYU controversy, “Maybe this girl thought that she heard something. That’s the best case scenario for her. More likely, this is just another fraud. It’s Jussie Smollett on a volleyball court.”

Some readers have asked the Editorial Board to reconsider our editorial that said the game should have been suspended or ended once Richardson reported the abuse. We think that is still the correct view. Putting a police officer on the bench was not the appropriate response to a player reporting racist comments from the crowd.

That the BYU review did not prove Richardson’s claim doesn’t make it untrue. And it’s notable that BYU conducted an internal review involving the university’s reputation. It was not an outside investigation by people with no stake in the outcome.

Richardson, however, did report what she heard to her coaches during the game. She recounted the situation to her father in a call from the team bus afterward. She described the taunts in a statement. There continues to be no apparent reason for why she would fabricate a claim that would taint BYU and subject her to unwanted scrutiny. And, as BYU learned over the weekend, heckling from the stands can cross the line of what’s acceptable.

In the end, it’s Richardson’s word against a lack of confirmation. We see no reason for her to lie. We do see evidence of her distress.

We believe her.