Last year, an independent review found that University of Minnesota athletics did not have a “sexual harassment climate.” But is there a racist climate in U of M athletics? A former Black female track athlete believes so, and she says that school officials aren’t taking it very seriously.
“As to whether or not there is a pattern or problem about how Black student athletes or other student athletes of color are treated, I am not sure I can specifically speak to that,” said Kimberly Hewitt, the school’s Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action director. In a recent interview at Hewett’s office in McNamara Alumni Center, the MSR asked her about a racial harassment complaint her office received last year from senior Natasha Moore.
“Racial discrimination sometimes is harder to prove,” said Hewitt. “We definitely do have cases where we are able to establish that there was racial discrimination, and we definitely get complaints in that area.”
“I am so angry,” said Moore in an exclusive MSR interview as she painfully talked about her time on the Gophers women’s track team after she arrived on campus in 2013. “I officially quit in May 2015.
“At least once a week I had to deal with having people say some stupid things to me,” continued Moore, a St. Paul native. However, she referred to “three big events” in which she encountered racially insensitive remarks: First, being called a “nappy head” by male track members. Second: She and other Black female teammates were referred to as a “slave ship” — “I walk down the hallway at 6 am and boys from the other team [say], ‘Here comes the slave ship.’”
Third: Just before winter break in the 2014-15 academic year, Moore said she was subjected to a racially insensitive remark by a male athletic trainer while she was in the training room. “This White dude would say to me, ‘I like my coffee like I like my athletes, Black and strong. I was so distraught. I was so upset. I went and told my coach what happened, and he said don’t go into the training room for a few days.”
Moore first reported it to her coaches and then to a university female official, who according to the student responded with laughter. “She kind of laughed when she heard what exactly was said. It was a nervous laugh.
“Then I was questioned about…being too sensitive about all these things. It was like my account was illegitimate — it didn’t really matter to them,” said Moore.
A former teammate, a Black female who spoke to the MSR on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, confirmed that Moore had told her what happened. “He always said disrespectful things to a lot of [Black] females on the team,” she said of the male trainer.
“They weren’t surprised about it because that’s what he does. I wasn’t really surprised.” She feels that if a White female track athlete had reported something similar, “He would have been dealt with differently.”
Moore said the trainer later apologized, but she didn’t believe it was heartfelt. She also recalled during her freshman year (2013-14) a White female strength and conditioning coach making “uncomfortable comments” to her. Another female trainer sometimes would “make bad comments, too — just ignorant stuff.”
Section II. Implementation of the University of Minnesota Board of Regents Equity, Diversity, Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Policy adopted in 1995 and amended in 2009 states that the school “shall establish and nurture an environment for faculty, staff, students and visitors…free from racism…and other forms of prejudice, intolerance, or harassment.”
“I used to hate coming into the [Bierman Athletic] building,” admitted Moore. “I was sticking [it] out, and I didn’t tell anybody because I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to tell, even the other Black girls on the team. I stuck to myself because I was scared.”
Moore said she later filed her complaint in Hewitt’s office “around March or April” of last year.
“There was a strong response from our office,” said Hewitt on Moore’s complaint. “[And] we investigate, and we make a decision about whether or not university policy was violated, and make a recommendation to the department. We did an investigation fairly quickly.”
However, the director told the MSR, “Ultimately it is the department’s decision to implement our recommendation or to take responsive action. We can’t say you do X.”
The Athletic Department makes the decision to take action or not on what happened to Moore. “I wouldn’t say what they did wasn’t consistent,” said Hewitt. “Sometimes we give them a range of options, but ultimately it is their decision about how to handle it.”
U of M Interim Athletics Director Beth Goetz, when asked about the Moore incident, said, “I don’t know enough to comment on the specific situation. I would be extremely disappointed if any of our student-athletes…were in an environment being disrespected for any reason solely based on their race. We want to create an environment, a culture, that values despite the differences we have.”
Moore said more should have been done, including possibly reassigning the trainer or dismissing him. “There were some people who were sympathetic and upset,” including her coach, she pointed out. “However, I don’t think they [school officials] see it as a repeat problem. Someone told me that something did happen but he’s still there.”
The University of Illinois earlier this year settled a racial discrimination suit filed in 2015 with seven former Black women’s basketball players. A former Black Iowa State women’s basketball player recently filed a racial discrimination and retaliation suit against the school and the current head coach.
“Yes, we have had complaints,” Hewitt reiterated, “but I couldn’t tell you the number from individuals inside athletics. The two most frequent [types] of complaints we get in our office are about sexual harassment or sexual misconduct and something related to race.
“I think historically it has gone back and forth between those two categories,” Hewitt continued. “I think because there is a lot of attention focused on sexual misconduct…most of our complaints might be in that area right now.
“I think all college campuses are challenged in terms of how you address sexual misconduct [incidents] effectively and how do you create an environment where people can report. I think that would be the same for racial harassment.”
Next week: Our interview with Moore continues.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.