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The black T-shirts read “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” but the message meant to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. during UCLA’s season-opening meet rang hollow for several Bruins gymnasts.
Wearing matching T-shirts did little to cloak wounds from months of internal strife within the UCLA program. After two gymnasts told The Times a teammate used a racial slur, which prompted a university response that some gymnasts of color found to be insufficient, the Bruins produced their worst team score in seven years. Senior Margzetta Frazier, along with a teammate who spoke with The Times on condition of anonymity because she feared repercussions, described a negative atmosphere and cracks within the famously joyful facade of one of the nation's most visible and successful programs.
@MartinJarmond we are saddened that we’ve exhausted every avenue to have this issue addressed and have not heard or seen from you in over 3 months. Please respond to the email I sent you.
— Norah Flatley (@norah_flatley) January 20, 2022
The second-year athletic director met with gymnasts Tuesday, two days after they finished second in a tri-meet against Oregon State and UC Davis.
Frazier left the meeting feeling hopeful, she said in a Tuesday afternoon interview with The Times. Jarmond admitted in the meeting — which didn't include coaches — that the administration handled the situation poorly and didn't do enough. Representatives from the school's counseling and psychological services who were in attendance agreed, and hearing that confirmation momentarily put Frazier at ease.
Jarmond released a statement Tuesday after the meeting with the gymnasts, saying "the health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes is always our priority." He added that the program "proactively engaged the support of campus and external experts on equity, diversity and inclusion, incidents of bias, mental-health and communication."
A statement from athletic director Martin Jarmond. pic.twitter.com/PzAaL22HMO
— UCLA Athletics (@UCLAAthletics) January 25, 2022
Any goodwill the meeting generated, Frazier said, was eroded by Jarmond's statement, which she described as "discouraging." What the senior remembers from three months of meetings were abstract conversations that didn't specifically address racism on the team. Her requests for help, she says, "were neglected and brushed under the rug."
"It seemed like these were things put in place to check off boxes," Frazier said. "It was performative and it did not do anything. … I know for a fact that myself and my Black teammates suffered greatly. We haven’t had training — I would say that for the whole team — we have not had correct training for three months because of the emotional despair and the lack of trust between the gymnasts and the staff."
According to team sources, the conflict began early in the fall when several gymnasts heard a teammate who is not Black sing lyrics that included the N-word. Two other teammates who heard about the incident and additional use of the N-word approached the gymnast who had sung the lyrics to help her understand why her teammates were offended and seek an apology.
But the gymnast denied she had done anything wrong.
The gymnasts then took their concerns to coaches and administrators, led by third-year coach Chris Waller and senior associate athletic director Christina Rivera.
Coaches held a series of one-on-one meetings with gymnasts and arranged meetings to speak about mental health and racism. The parade of experts from both inside and outside the athletic department addressed the team for three months, but that has not eased all concerns, according to sources and the gymnasts' social media posts.
Black gymnasts cited other micro-aggressions from coaches that led to their plea for Jarmond's help, while some fans accused the Bruins of bullying a teammate.
The coaches told the Bruins they were concerned about the mental health of the gymnast accused of using the N-word and urged teammates to be more tolerant. The perceived prioritizing the non-Black gymnast's concerns over those of Black gymnasts only added to the tension, especially after coaches told some Black gymnasts their teammate felt "scared" or "intimidated" by them, according to gymnasts on the team.
Waller avoided public comment in press conferences the last two weeks but issued a statement to The Times on Tuesday saying: "As a coach and educator, my deepest concern is always the health and well-being of each member of this team, and I will continue to support these young leaders and do my best to give them the experience they deserve. My belief in the team is unwavering."
A pall hung over the team as practices continued. Some gymnasts remained unsatisfied with how the situation was addressed and that the teammate who used the slur was allowed to return to practice without approval or consultation from teammates who were offended by her behavior.
Ultimately, gymnasts pushed for a team meeting and some requested the gymnast who used the slur apologize and be suspended for two meets. Instead, she informed coaches she was leaving the program.
Louisiana State coach Jay Clark confirmed in a press conference Tuesday the Tigers added a walk-on gymnast from UCLA. Clark said he worked with LSU associate athletic director of diversity, equity and inclusion Ashleigh Clare-Kearney Thigpen and deputy athletics director Lori Williams to interview the transfer and her family. LSU gymnasts connected with UCLA gymnasts and the accounts were "consistent from the gymnasts that were there and the gymnast that was coming here and not at all what people on the Internet would portray it as," Clark said.
The gymnast who transferred did not respond to multiple requests by The Times for comment.
Only days before UCLA’s season-opening meet, news of the transfer started circulating online when the former Bruin changed her social media biographies to say “LSU Gymnastics.” It was accompanied by claims that UCLA gymnasts bullied her into transferring by suggesting she take her life or putting rotten fish in her locker or backpack.
Frazier denied the bullying allegations on Twitter and in her interview with The Times.
My team does not tolerate hazing, ill vocabulary to one another, or bullying of any kind! Those are the most horrible LIES I have ever heard and you grown ass adults should be so ashamed of yourselves. Ashamed. We treated her with compassion STILL!!! Even the very last day!!!
— Margzetta (@IAmMargzetta) January 23, 2022
"I hope she is doing well," Frazier said of her former teammate. "I hope people are watching after her and that she is safe because the problem isn't even her anymore."
The bullying rumors posted online caused additional stress for the gymnasts who were planning to stage an intra-squad meet in practice before their season opener, sources told The Times. The attention stoked another round of intense conversations about race entering the meet at Minnesota. It wasn’t lost on the Bruins that they would be competing in the same city where George Floyd was killed.
The months of eroding trust showed on the competition floor, where UCLA, which began the season ranked eighth nationally, scored a 194.85 and finished last in a meet against Minnesota and Iowa.
With the meet on Martin Luther King Day, the Bruins planned to wear their “Black excellence” leotards, which they had designed in summer 2020 at the height of protests for racial justice. Gymnasts shunned them in favor of a solid gold leotard.
UCLA’s unique black and gold leotards that featured a raised fist on the shoulder were an eye-catching symbol to the team’s commitment for social justice. The Bruins have long been considered an inclusive and accepting team for gymnasts of color, relying on a foundation set by former coach Valorie Kondos Field. The flair with which they performed and the joy they showed attracted international acclaim through viral floor routines.
The program is now attracting different kinds of attention. Some fans are calling for a coaching change. Frazier said she is worried about how the rumors of bullying will impact the way her team is perceived in opposing arenas.
But when they competed at Oregon State on Jan. 23, the Bruins found refuge in the stands. Senior Sekai Wright took a photo of fans holding signs that read: “The time is always right to do what is right,” “We stand with UCLA gymnasts,” and “Black lives matter.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.