Black College Gymnasts Describe Dealing with Racism, Isolation in ESPN Report

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistAugust 14, 2020

Gymnasts compete inside Chaifetz Arena on the Saint Louis University campus during the NCAA college women's gymnastics championships Friday, April 20, 2018, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Multiple Black gymnasts who've competed at the collegiate level expressed concern to ESPN about a growing disconnect between themselves and white head coaches, which one source said has led prominent college programs to begin seeking out a race-based "specific type of gymnast." 

ESPN's David Hale, D'Arcy Maine and Alex Scarborough reported Friday a June Twitter post by former Alabama gymnast Tia Kiaku led other Black gymnasts at several NCAA programs to speak about their experiences with racism and isolation.

Tia Kiaku 🇨🇩 @tia_kiaku33

@BamaGymnastics Do we really stand together? The program that allowed the Assistant Coach to make a racist “joke” & ask a group of black girls “what is this the back of the bus”,allowed gymnast to say the N word, and much more. You cant stand with us & allow injustices to happen.

Kiaku said Crimson Tide assistant coach Bill Lorenz came up to herself and two Black teammates, Makarri Doggette and Sania Mitchell, while they were sitting together during a vault practice and said, "What is this, the back of the bus?" referring to segregated bus lines prior to the Civil Rights Movement.

She told ESPN that Lorenz never apologized to her for the incident, though Doggette and Mitchell told the school he did reach out with an apology. She added there were numerous other times during her time at Alabama, which ended in January, where the use of the N-word was qualified as being "just a joke."

Kiaku explained she's reached out to around 20 other programs since leaving the Tide in hope of competing in one more season of college gymnastics but received no offers.

"I didn't want my gymnastics career to end so quickly," she told ESPN. "But if I have to be the guide for other Black gymnasts to feel like they can speak out, I'm totally fine with that."

Alabama gymnastics coach Dana Duckworth didn't discuss any of the specifics raised by Kiaku, saying she "respectfully disagree[d] with the assumptions" made in the questions, but offered a statement to ESPN:

"Through training and education, I've worked to enhance my awareness of how thoughts, beliefs, words and actions can affect others. In coordination with our University's and Department's strong diversity, equity and inclusion leadership, we've also done trainings and had conversations as a team to further enhance the inclusive and supportive culture of our program, where racism and racial insensitivity have never been acceptable."

Penn State's Erynne Allen said speaking out on the topic is "scary and hard":

"You accept the fact that when you go to a meet, the mesh isn't going to match your skin tone because you're not white. When you order your undergarments for your leotard, they're not going to match because you're not white. We have to put what's called 'skin tone' tape we have to put over our athletic tape, and I always laugh because it doesn't really do much for me."

Telah Black, who competed for Auburn from 2016 through 2018, called her final season with the Tigers "lonely and challenging."

"I remember everyone laughing, but I didn't think it was funny," Black told ESPN about a holiday party where she was gifted acorns from a teammate who said, "That's what your head looks like." "It was just one situation of many where I felt so uneasy, and like I had no support."

The NCAA gymnastics coaching community also lacks diversity with only two Black head coaches and four Black assistants, per ESPN.

UCLA junior and former U.S. national team member Margzetta Frazier told ESPN about the body image issues she experienced because she felt judges would score her differently because she is Black.

"I hated my body for the longest time," said Frazier. "I felt the only way for the judges to get past my color was for them to at least see how beautiful and thin my body could look, but it was impossible for me to look like that in a healthy way."

Alexis Brown, who knelt during the national anthem in protest of police violence and racial injustice during her time at UC Davis, said her coach John Lavallee told her "she was setting a bad example for children in attendance and disrespected the American flag" and said she was being "overly dramatic" because "racism is not a thing anymore." She said her teammates also started avoiding her.

"I felt isolated every single day," Brown said. "At that point, I was crying multiple times a day, crying through beam routines. It was pretty hostile."

Although many student-athletes spoke to ESPN about their experiences, others turned down the opportunity because of the "fear of retribution."