An Open Letter to Tom Holmoe, BYU Athletic Department Director
My name is Luke Hanson. I am a student at Brigham Young University. I am also a co-founder of The Cougar Chronicle, a small student-run newspaper for BYU. The Monday after the infamous BYU vs Duke volleyball game, we were contacted by a source inside the BYU athletic department who was very concerned about the department’s response to the allegations made by Rachel Richardson. Our source was concerned that the department was accepting Ms. Richardson's allegations as fact even though they had information that suggested otherwise.
By sharing messages between athletic department staff, our source provided this missing information. You knew within hours of the game that the fan accused by Duke of yelling the slurs could not have been the right person if such a person even existed. You also knew that the accused fan likely was mentally handicapped. You also knew that even if there was a fan shouting slurs, it was almost impossible that they “increased in intensity” in the second half because you were closely monitoring the student second in the second half.
Despite all of this, you put out a statement on Twitter the following day unequivocally accepting Richardson's allegations and insinuating that you had banned the fan who had been yelling the slurs. This greatly increased the credibility of Richardson’s claims, especially for those like me who were initially skeptical of such allegations. You also took the opportunity the day after the match to make a personal appearance to once again back up Richardson’s claims and call upon the BYU students to “do better” – i.e., "stop being OK with blatant racism". You repeated this sentiment later in a Deseret News op-ed.
Why did you respond this way? I think I already know the answer: fear. You and whoever counseled you were afraid of the cancel mob, corporate media, and blue checkmark Twitter. You could have come out with a statement such as: “We take racism very seriously and are conducting a thorough investigation. We encourage all who may have evidence to contact us immediately. Appropriate discipline will be taken against any fan found to have engaged in racist behavior.” But you knew that wasn’t going to be good enough for those who wield cultural power. Any indication that you might not fully believe Richardson would not be accepted. You must listen to, believe, and comply with any demand made by the alleged victim to have a chance of escaping reprimand by the mob.
This Twitter-approved version of dealing with racism allegations comes at a cost. First, you have lost the trust of a wide swath of the BYU community both students, professors, donors, and alumni by aligning with a narrative rather than the truth. Second, you have thrown the student body under the bus by condescendingly calling on them to be more Christlike and apologizing on their behalf. This gave ammunition to BYU’s critics who flooded social media with the usual vitriol. Third, you used an intellectually handicapped young man as a scapegoat to demonstrate how seriously you took Richardson’s claim. I hate to think how hard his life has been these past few weeks. I hope you and everyone else involved understands the natural consequences that result from attempting to placate the mob.
I do appreciate a few of the actions taken by BYU athletics during this incident. You put out a statement soon after this story exploded in the media clarifying that the banned man was not the one hurling slurs. However, in that statement, you reaffirmed that “the Duke players’ experience is what matters here… we truly do apologize.” However, this statement was not posted on social media and therefore was barely noticed by the public. I also appreciate that you did eventually come around to the fact that there was no evidence supporting Richardson's allegations. However, I can’t help but notice your apology to the banned fan was… short. Considering the multitude of groveling apologies you heaped on Richardson and anyone else possibly adversely affected by the alleged racism, I hope you can understand why I and many others in the BYU community find BYU athletics’ apology to the banned fan lacking. I encourage you to be as rigorous standing for truth and rooting out ableism as you were for rooting out racism.
My criticisms of your actions and those of BYU athletics have been pointed, but please do not believe that I think you are a bad person. I am certain you have good intentions and that is why I am writing this letter. I want to explain what I think the takeaways from this incident should be. I am writing this as an open letter because the suggestions I have are not just for you, they are for everyone in the BYU community. Consequently, I will use the word ‘we’ as I describe what everyone in the BYU community should learn from this incident.
To learn the lessons we should take from this incident, we first need to understand that it is not over. Maybe the case is closed on this allegation of racism, but more will come. Even now BYU is facing charges of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Our response to one incident sets the stage for how we can respond to the next, and that next response will set the stage for our response to the next incident, and so on. As we formulate our response to each new controversy, we must ask ourselves a question posed recently by Dallin H Oaks, “where will this lead?” I think I can answer where your response to racism allegations will lead in one word: Evergreen.
Evergreen College is a small liberal arts college located in the capital of the state of Washington. If the location doesn’t give it away, it is a very liberal school. In the months and years leading up to May 2017, it may have been the most progressive school in the nation in terms of so-called antiracism. Many of the recommendations from BYU’s Race Equity and Belonging Report mirror actions being taken by Evergreen at that time. Rather than creating a racism-free utopia, Evergreen created a hyper-sensitized student body empowered to lash out at any perceived racial slight. When a professor suggested to his colleagues that racial segregation shouldn’t be implemented at an upcoming event in May 2017, all hell broke loose. There were police, near riots, struggle sessions, chants, groveling, professors leaving, and legal settlements. In short, it was nasty. You can find painstakingly detailed documentation of this incident in a video series compiled by Benjamin Boyce. Evergreen has still not recovered in the five years since this episode. By almost every available metric the school is failing, all thanks to the Evergreen administration and faculty coddling and brainwashing their students into a worldview singularly focused on oppression.
BYU is not Evergreen… not yet. We must be on guard to ensure we remain unlike Evergreen. Your response to this incident tacitly endorsed a certain worldview – that is, everyone is not equal. Those who rank higher on the oppression hierarchy must be served even at the expense of those lower in the hierarchy. To put it another way, it is better to make life hell for a mentally disabled man than to insinuate a black woman was lying or mistaken. Once again, I am not saying you personally believe this, but you acted to appease those that do have that worldview. The more we align our public statements and actions with this destructive worldview, the more it takes hold. It is often the small steps we do not realize we are taking that lead us to very bad places. Another Cougar Chronicle article explains this worldview in more depth, I suggest you read it.
I propose we return to aligning with a worldview befitting a gospel-centered university. That is, treat everyone equally. Do not give special deference to any race, gender, religion, orientation, etc. This should not be a difficult concept; it is espoused by both Christianity and classical liberalism. I acknowledge it is not always easy to uphold in a world gone mad. “Persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame,” but who cares? As explained by Jeffery R Holland last year, and reiterated by Dallin H Oaks this year, BYU should be exerting its influence on the world rather than running to catch up to it. I expect the mob to respond the way they did, but I have higher hopes for BYU. I speak for many who love BYU when I say we are ready to cheer on anyone who demonstrates a firm commitment to the values of BYU and its sponsoring institution The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
P.S. My purpose in writing was to evaluate and provide constructive criticism of your actions. I intentionally have avoided questions of the truthfulness of or motivations for Ms. Richardson’s allegations. We may never know, but the content of my letter stands independent of the answers to these questions.
The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author
The Cougar Chronicle is an independent student-run newspaper and is not affiliated with Brigham Young University or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints