Black Collegiate Gymnasts Face Culture of Racism and Isolation

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[Tia Kiaku\Racism in Gymnastics]
ESPN: "ESPN confirmed details of Kiaku's accounts through multiple sources directly associated with her and Alabama gymnastics...The accounts describe a culture of racial insensitivity and a pattern of offensive behavior by Duckworth."
Photo: Facebook

Black gymnast Tia Kiaku exposed an alleged culture of racism inside the University of Alabama's gymnastics program.

The tweet popped up in Tia Kiaku's timeline on June 2. It was a simple message from the Alabama gymnastics program featuring a plain, black square marked with the word "unity," part of a nationwide response to bring awareness to social and racial injustice and similar to the hundreds of other tweets posted from college programs across the country.

But for Kiaku, this one felt personal.

Alabama gymnastics coach Dana Duckworth preached a mantra of "one heartbeat," the team's de facto motto that was part of what lured Kiaku to Tuscaloosa as a walk-on gymnast less than two years earlier. After about six months at Alabama, however, Kiaku said she wasn't embraced as part of a family. Instead, she said she witnessed teammates using racial slurs, was the subject of a racist joke from an assistant coach and was forced to defend herself against accusations of promiscuous behavior that Duckworth suggested was the result of growing up in a single-parent household. Unity in Alabama's gymnastics program, Kiaku said, was about conformity.

Kiaku hadn't spoken publicly about her experiences at Alabama, worried the attention would effectively end any shot she had of joining another team. After seeing Alabama's tweet, she talked with her mother and texted a few friends and decided she couldn't remain silent.

Kiaku then tweeted: @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.

As Kiaku's June 2 tweet circulated, other gymnasts from storied programs such as Florida, Auburn and UCLA shared their own experiences within the sport.

"We're a small group, and it's a predominantly white sport," said Erynne Allen, a Black gymnast at Penn State who reached out to Kiaku following her tweet. "It's not a national sport. Sometimes a gymnast speaking out, you wonder if people are going to care. [In gymnastics], everyone knows everyone, so it's scary and hard, but it has to be done."

The often-insular world of college gymnastics is a sport now reckoning with a culture built around white athletes. And like other student-athletes from other sports across the country, Black gymnasts say they are finding more courage to speak out amid the recent public protests in response to George Floyd's death while in police custody in May. Thanks in part to the success of Black gymnasts such as Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, there has been an increase in participation over the past decade, but as of 2019, only 9% of Division I female gymnasts in 2019 were Black, up from 4.5% in 2008, according to the NCAA Demographics Database.

Over the past two months, Kiaku and Allen were among the more than 30 people ESPN interviewed within college gymnastics, including current and former athletes, coaches and administrators. Many were hesitant to talk on the record, out of pressure not to "rock the boat." But a commonality surfaced among them, at Alabama and beyond: a clear disconnect between Black gymnasts and their predominantly white coaches, who have trended toward recruiting what one source called a "specific type of gymnast."

Alabama officials said gymnasts were encouraged to speak out about race after Floyd's death, but ESPN obtained a copy of a group message sent by Duckworth shortly after Kiaku's social media post, which said, in part, "It is best that our staff, team and parents NOT comment, engage directly or indirectly" regarding Kiaku's claims.

ESPN confirmed details of Kiaku's accounts through multiple sources directly associated with her and Alabama gymnastics and documents shared by Alabama through the Freedom of Information Act. The accounts describe a culture of racial insensitivity and a pattern of offensive behavior by Duckworth that resulted in an official reprimand from athletic director Greg Byrne and eventually led Kiaku to leave the program.

Read the rest of this ESPN story here:

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