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Utah Women’s Basketball Team Racism Incident Proves NCAA Is Not Protecting Student Athletes

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Following their loss to Gonzaga University in the second round of the women’s March Madness tournament, University of Utah head coach Lynne Roberts addressed the press. It was “incredibly upsetting for all of us,” Roberts said. “For our players and staff to not feel safe in an NCAA tournament environment, that's messed up.”

Roberts was speaking about the fact that her players had to change hotels after being on the receiving end of racist verbal and physical threats at the NCAA-chosen hotel the team and its personnel were placed in for part of the tournament. But unfortunately, this is a pattern when it comes to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s treatment of student-athletes, and it’s one the organization should be prepared to address.

According to accounts from Roberts, who is white, and Utah deputy athletics director Charmelle Green, who is Black, the girls’ basketball team, cheerleaders, and members of the band were walking from their hotel to a nearby restaurant for dinner when a white truck pulled up, revved its engine, and yelled the “n-word” at the group before driving off.

“We all just were in shock, and we looked at each other like, did we just hear that?” Green told KSL.com. “Everybody was in shock — our cheerleaders, our students that were in that area that heard it clearly were just frozen.”

When the group went to leave the restaurant, they said there were two trucks outside waiting for them, revving their engines, shouting, and again hurling the “n-word” at them. They walked back to the hotel in large throngs to avoid being in small groups, out of fear for their safety. The team is “troubled” and “shaken” by the experience.

The tournament bracket sent Utah to Spokane, Washington for the first two rounds, with their games being played at Gonzaga’s McCarthey Athletic Center. But according to reporting from the Associated Press, Spokane was overrun — and over-crowded — with all the visitors traveling into town and hotel space was scarce. As a result, the Utah women’s basketball team, band, cheerleaders, and coaches were lodged at a hotel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, 35 minutes south and over the state line.

The area has a well-known history of white nationalism, bigotry and racist violence. Last year, five members of the hate group Patriot Front were convicted for planning to violently disrupt a Pride event in Coeur d’Alene. “And yes, all of this information was available for the NCAA to Google,” The Atlantic contributor Jemele Hill pointed out on X. Even more troubling was that, since the team was over the state line, the Washington-state police escort the team had been assigned had no jurisdiction over what occurred in Idaho, according to KSL.com.

“We should not have been there. I do appreciate the NCAA and [host school] Gonzaga moving us from that situation, but we should never have been there in the first place,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said. The day the Utah team was relocated, headlines in the local Coeur d’Alene Press announced that the local library would no longer recognize Juneteenth as a holiday, and local far-right operative Dave Reilly showed up to disrupt the team’s press conference about their experience.

Why the NCAA allowed student-athletes, many of whom are students of color (in 2023, only 32% of NCAA Division I women’s basketball players identified as white) or queer or both, to be sent to Coeur d’Alene is anyone’s guess. But the association failing to prioritize the safety of their athletes is, unfortunately, par for the course where the NCAA is concerned. This latest incident is just the most recent in a pattern of long-standing disregard when it comes to protecting marginalized student-athletes. Despite a commitment to only scheduling championships in locations that can provide an environment that’s “safe, healthy and free of discrimination,” it’s clear to me that the NCAA does not always uphold that promise, as the Utah women’s basketball team can unfortunately attest. (Teen Vogue reached out to the NCAA for comment).

While in 2016, the NCAA responded to a “bathroom bill” passed in North Carolina that barred transgender people from using bathrooms and locker rooms that aligned with their gender by moving events out of the state, they have taken a more hands-off approach to the current wave of anti-trans legislation. Trans student-athletes now routinely have to play in states with anti-trans policies, and despite the NCAA appearing to threaten to pull out of states with such policies, as The Washington Post reported, they never did. In fact, in 2021 when bans on trans student athletes were beginning to sweep the country, the NCAA chose three states with transgender athlete bans on the books as regional hosts for their softball tournament. At the time, some NCAA student-athletes demanded that the organization condemn these bills, but instead the organization said it was “monitoring” the situation.

“It feels like we’re being erased. It almost feels like you’re being backstabbed, because it’s like you commit yourself to this organization…And then they just make decisions that backstab your people, your identity, your community,” Cj Johnson, a field hockey player at Earlham College, told Sports Illustrated at the time. “I don’t think that [the NCAA has] our backs as much as they say they do. Sometimes it just feels performative.”

The NCAA is the also the same institution that argued in court that it has “no legal duty to protect” athletes against sexual abuse and harassment after three former athletes filed a class action lawsuit in 2020 accusing the NCAA of letting coaches sexually abuse their athletes (while federally-funded member institutions are liable to Title IX’s anti-discrimination regulations, the NCAA itself is not). They even let schools that discriminate against LGBTQ+ students join the organization (in opposition to the NCAA’s stated values of “inclusion” and “equality”) — and qualify to compete in the March Madness tournament, giving them a national stage to recruit students and sportswash their bigotry.

In my view, it’s clear that the NCAA repeatedly puts their most marginalized athletes in danger. As Julia Steggerda-Corey writes in a 2024 article in the Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, “Despite the initial purpose of the NCAA to protect student-athletes, its failure to address and stop athlete abuse in its 117-year existence… contributes to a racist college sports establishment created and perpetuated by the NCAA in which Black and brown student-athletes are commodified instead of valued and protected like their white counterparts.” What should have been a dream for Utah students — a trip to March Madness, playing on college basketball’s biggest stage — will forever be marred by the events in Coeur d’Alene. The trauma of that night “is something that is going to take a long time for us all to process,” Harlan told KSL.com. “It's not the experience that our student-athletes and our students overall should have experienced.”

It should be the NCAA’s job to protect student athletes, yet they seem to think otherwise. “How can we expect players to show up and play games of their lives when they’re worried about their actual life??” HighlightHER founder Ari Chambers asked on X. It's a good question, and one the NCAA should be prepared to answer.

If the association can’t do so, it further makes the case for student-athletes to unionize, which would allow the players to negotiate over things like salary, travel, and accommodations. After Dartmouth’s men’s basketball team voted last month to unionize, the stage is set for college sports to become ground zero for the labor movement. If the NCAA won’t protect the players, the players will have to claim their power and protect themselves.

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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue


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