In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Tia Kiaku, a black collegiate gymnast at Alabama University, found herself amidst a nationwide effort to bring issues of racial injustice in workplaces, classrooms, and on sports team to light. On June 2, when her former university’s gymnastics program posted a black square to social media that read “unity,” Kaiku questioned their motives.
“@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 gymnasts to say the N-word, and much more. You cant stand with us & allow injustices to happen,” Kaiku wrote on Twitter in response.
Like we’ve seen in the entertainment industry with similar scandals such as what’s happening with the Ellen Degeneres show, Kaiku started a domino effect, and dozens of other black gymnasts across the country echoed her sentiments, revealing their own experiences with racism in the sport. Athletes from renowned programs like Florida, Auburn and UCLA, spoke out in solidarity, ESPN reports. “We’re a small group, and it’s a predominantly white sport,” said Erynne Allen, a Black gymnast at Penn State. “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.”
Over the last two months, Kiaku and Allen were among the more than 30 people within collegiate gymnastics interviewed by ESPN, including current and former athletes, coaches, and administrators.
The outlet says that many, though, were hesitant to speak on record out of fear of retaliation. A group message sent by Alabama gymnastics coach Dana Duckworth regarding Kaiku’s claims read in part, “It is best that our staff, team, and parents NOT comment, engage directly or indirectly.”
ESPN was able to confirm the details of Kiaku’s accounts through multiple sources directly associated with her and the university’s gymnastics team. They report that all the accounts detailed a culture of microaggressions, racial and ethnic grouping terms, unconscious bias, and derogatory slurs.
Though Duckworth was later reprimanded by the school’s athletic director Greg Byrne, that didn’t stop Kaiku from slipping into a deep depression, often engaging in self-harm to relieve stress and eventually leaving Alabama University and the sport she loves so dearly, altogether. This is the reality for black men and women in America who speak out about injustice.
“I didn’t want my gymnastics career to end so quickly,” Kiaku said. “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.”
When Kaiku transferred to Alabama was a walk-on gymnast, she says her former coach Duckworth preached a mantra of “one heartbeat.” That motto was a large part of what lured Kaiku to Tuscaloosa in the first place. But, after a short and sweet six months at school, she became the butt of racist jokes, witnessed teammates using slurs, and was forced to defend herself against accusations of promiscuous behavior that Duckworth suggested was the result of being raised by a single mother.
Kaiku recalls situations like being used a pawn by the university to “promote diversity” but alleged it was all a ruse. During a Halloween intrasquad meet, the coaching staff suggested a “Cowboys and Indians” theme, forcing the black gymnasts to dress as the Indians who posed for a photo while the white teammates, dressed as cowboys, pointed toy guns at them. During practice, one teammate told Kaiku that the hip-hop being played was “your music.” Once when Kaiku corrected a white teammate on the pronunciation of a word, she responded, “I don’t tell you how to pronounce your language.” White teammates routinely sang along with song lyrics that recited the N-word, Kaiku says the slur was used on numerous occasions outside of musical context. Another incident occurred when Kaiku was sitting together with two other Black teammates at practice when assistant coach Bill Lorenz approached them saying, “What is this, the back of the bus?”
“I appreciate the opportunity, but respectfully disagree with the assumptions included in many of the presented questions, which don’t align with the materials [the Title IX investigation documents] that were provided,” Duckworth said in a statement to ESPN. “We care about every single student-athlete that comes through this program and want each one to have the best experience possible. This was no different for Tia. Looking back, yes, I wish I wouldn’t have worded some things the way I did. That being said, I always had Tia’s well-being in mind. I’ve learned important lessons from this situation, and I apologize to Tia and am sorry that her experience at Alabama was not what she hoped it would be.”
Due to Kaiku’s allegations, Alabama’s Title IX office launched an investigation into gymnastics program from November 2019 through January 2020. During the investigation, Kaiku said she had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Her roommates began distancing themselves, coaches gave her the cold shoulder, she stopped attending practices and team events, and previously on the dean’s list for the spring 2019 semester, she stopped going to her classes altogether. After returning home for winter break, she began seeing a therapist who diagnosed her with Depression after she started cutting herself. Kaiku officially withdrew from the university in January.
“This is happening everywhere,” former Auburn gymnast Kennedy Finister told ESPN. “I thought, if they’re strong enough to come forward and do this, I need to stand behind them, because it happened to me too, and I wanted them to know they weren’t alone. If there’s a time to speak up, it’s now.”
Since then, Kaiku has reached out to upwards of 20 different schools in hopes of transferring and getting to compete in one last season, but so far, none have offered her a spot. Though Kaiku may not be able to compete, some good has come out of her bravery. Schools like Penn State are now adopting regular diversity training. The coach even assembled an NCAA diversity and inclusion task force specifically for gymnastics.
Sadly, Kaiku doesn’t think it will change anything. “Athletes will still be afraid to speak out,” she said. “Look what happened to me. I’m out of the sport I love.”