Allegations of racist behavior in UCLA gymnastics are just the tip of the iceberg

Allegations of racist behavior in the UCLA gymnastics program have opened old wounds and eyes to just how pervasive racism can be in NCAA gymnastics.

For Tia Kiaku, it was a “slap in the face.”

Kiaku is a former Alabama gymnast who left the NCAA and the sport in 2020 after reporting the racist behavior of her teammates and the team’s assistant coach — including the use of the “N” word and singing song lyrics containing the same word — to administrators. Kiaku broke her silence about the events that led her to leave Alabama in a tweet on June 2, 2020 and elaborated further in an ESPN Magazine story that August.

On Jan. 15, Alexis Jeffrey, a freshman on UCLA’s gymnastics team, changed her Twitter bio to read “LSU gymnast” followed by a purple heart emoji and a tiger emoji.

A few people immediately questioned the change on social media. Jeffrey verbally committed to UCLA in 2018, according to her Instagram, signed her NLI in 2020 and had consistently posted photos of practices and photo shoots with her Bruins teammates since September, when she officially joined the team. CollegeGymNews had named her a four-star recruit for UCLA in 2020 and touted her bars and beam skills as an asset for the team as recently as the Meet the Bruins intrasquad meet on Dec. 16.

Then a bombshell: A screenshot of a Facebook post alleging that Jeffrey, who is Asian, had used racial slurs in front of her teammates, was asked to stop by her teammates, had refused, and, in the absence of intervention from coaches or the UCLA athletic department leadership, entered the transfer portal.

The Facebook post was written by Tikisha Gobourne, whose daughter, Derrian, is a standout gymnast at Auburn, and was originally written for a private group of college gymnastics fans on Facebook. Once screenshot, it began circulating among gymnastics fans on Twitter. Gobourne, in a phone interview and in direct messages on Twitter, did not reveal who gave her the information about Jeffrey and UCLA, but said it was a fellow gymnastics parent she knew through a group called Brown Girls Do Gymnastics.

Derrin Moore, the founder of Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, confirmed that she, too, learned the same information from the same source, but that the source had contacted Moore and Gobourne separately and not through any of the social media accounts affiliated with Brown Girls Do Gymnastics.

Gobourne said she was “livid” when she heard the story. She said she wasn’t sure if she would discuss it publicly, but shared it to the Facebook group after seeing speculation about the circumstances of Jeffrey’s transfer there. She does not know who screenshot her post first, or who shared it first on other social media sites. Gobourne said she realized her words were being shared beyond the private group when she began receiving Twitter notifications after being tagged and realized, “oh, it’s me.”

The actress, comedian, and podcaster Amanda Seales used the screenshot as part of an Instagram story she created on Jan. 18 where she spoke about UCLA Gymnastics and Jeffrey. Seales, who has 1.9 million followers on Instagram, is a former gymnast herself who has featured UCLA gymnasts on her own podcast and is reportedly close to members of the team; she also attended a team practice at UCLA in October, which she featured on Instagram. Seales’ story is no longer available, but Lauren Hopkins, who runs The Gymternet, a popular gymnastics news website, tweeted a portion of it and also created a transcript of the full story, which also featured the screenshot of Gobourne’s post.

The allegations Gobourne wrote about in her post were verified by UCLA gymnast Margzetta Frazier, a senior, and an anonymous teammate of Frazier’s in a Los Angeles Times article Wednesday.

The UCLA athletic department did not respond to FanSided when asked for comment about the circumstances that led to Jeffrey entering the transfer portal. Gymnastics head coach Chris Waller said during a press conference on Jan. 20 that “I can’t comment on anything with [Jeffrey] as she’s no longer a student at UCLA.”

UCLA’s athletic director Martin Jarmon released a statement Tuesday but did not speak directly to any of the rumors surrounding Jeffrey’s transfer.

The LSU athletic department did not respond to a request for comment about Jeffrey, although their head gymnastics coach, Jay Clark, said at a press conference Tuesday that Jeffrey was joining the Tigers as a walk-on. Clark also said during that press conference that he had been “concerned” about Jeffrey’s abrupt mid-season transfer. He said he involved Ashleigh Clare-Kearney Thigpen, LSU’s athletic director for diversity, equity, and inclusion after LSU gymnasts spoke with UCLA gymnasts about Jeffrey and began to “ferret out facts.” Clark also said he had been unable to reach anyone at UCLA to discuss the situation.

The ease with which Jeffrey was apparently able to transfer schools left Kiaku stunned.

Racism, both overt and systemic, have long been a part of NCAA gymnastics

Kiaku and her mother, Desiree Gregory, opened a Title IX investigation at Alabama following a meeting between Kiaku, Alabama’s head coach, Dana Duckworth, and the athletic department’s diversity and inclusion officer. The Title IX office at Alabama found that assistant coach Bill Lorenz had violated the school’s harassment policy with a statement he made to Kiaku and two other Black gymnasts and sent both Lorenz and Duckworth through diversity training.

But Kiaku found herself frozen out of team activities and withdrew from Alabama. She said she entered the transfer portal but found herself essentially “blackballed,” when schools who, she said, later committed other gymnasts told her they did not have room on their rosters to take her on. Kiaku still has two years of NCAA eligibility remaining. But she has enrolled at North Carolina Central University, an HBCU, which does not have a gymnastics team, and says her career is over.

“This is a perfect example of how white privilege can get you further than your Blackness can ever,” Kiaku said in a phone interview about Jeffrey’s transfer.

“When [Tia] spoke out, she was alienated completely,” Gregory, her mother, said in a phone interview. Gregory said she heard about the allegations against Jeffrey from Gobourne and it “fueled a fire inside of me, back to what happened at Alabama.” Gregory said she watched Kiaku struggle with her mental health after leaving Alabama. “She was unhealthy,” Gregory said. “She had started doing things to hurt herself. She could not [live] away from home.”

Kiaku, who told ESPN last year that she had begun cutting herself after leaving Alabama and was diagnosed with depression, confirmed that “the last few years have been a little bit of an emotional rollercoaster.” She said reports that Jeffrey cited mental-health issues after her teammates confronted her about using racial slurs left a bad taste in her mouth.

“Racism is a traumatic experience and this is something that a lot of Black people go through,” Kiaku said. “I say this a lot, but racism is not a stepping stool for white people’s learning process. A lot of times you see these white gymnasts and white coaches [say], ‘oh, I’ve learned so much from this situation.’ And it seems like a lot of times the trauma gets taken out for the Black students and put in for the whites as a learning experience, which is kind of messed up.”

Racism in college gymnastics, as Kiaku’s story and the outpouring of support and sympathy from other Black gymnasts in its wake showed, is common. Black gymnasts from Nebraska, Penn State, Florida, Auburn, and University of California, Davis, were also quoted in the ESPN story on Kiaku about incidents of racism within their teams and/or from leadership that marred their college experiences. They and others also posted on social media about their experiences with racism in the sport, and, in particular, within the NCAA. Suzanne F. Boswell on Twitter created a thread shortly after Kiaku came forward to collect gymnasts’ accounts of the racism they endured.

Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

But UCLA Gymnastics has in recent years developed a reputation for being what Gobourne calls “a safe space” for gymnasts of color and from other marginalized communities. The team is diverse racially, many of its athletes are outspoken supporters of Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA+ rights, and the team has hosted Pride and Black Excellence-themed meets (the latter in leotards featuring a sequined raised fist on the arm). Most UCLA gymnasts kneel for the national anthem at meets. Gobourne suggests that their actions were not just for show; many in the gymnastics community believed the team had something really special, she said.

“I had seen the magazine covers and they had done these stories about diversity and inclusion,” said Gobourne, referring to the May 2021 Essence cover featuring four Black UCLA gymnasts. The gymnasts were also featured in Glamour in June and, in December, in a UCLA Magazine story that referred to them as a “big, multiethnic family.” Many of the athletes shared photos from a shoot for the latter on social media.

“So me being a parent of a Black gymnast, I’m like, yes, you know, this is what’s needed. When you have all these girls and they feel comfortable and they feel like they can be themselves. So when it happened and it was there, I was very surprised.”

Moore also said that allegations of racism at UCLA were not what she expected from that program. “I was not shocked that this happened in the NCAA. I was surprised that it happened at UCLA,” she said. “I do think that they, in particular, had been making a statement that this was a space for brown and Black gymnasts to thrive, and suddenly this happens.”

She said that gymnastics, historically a largely white sport that is also very expensive to participate in, has thrived as such by centering white gymnasts at the expense of Black gymnasts’ experience.

“In general there’s nothing done to invite or include the Black and brown gymnasts, they assimilate,” Moore said. “They don’t rock the boat.”

A former gymnast and coach who ran a gym in Decatur, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, where she lives, Moore started Brown Girls Do Gymnastics (BGDG) in 2016. It began as an Instagram account. In 2017, Moore held a conference “to bring in resources, people that I’ve met and coached with” with whom Black gymnasts and their parents could network. At that conference, several Black gym parents, including Gobourne, found themselves sharing so much information and developing such a rapport that they started a Facebook group to stay in touch between BGDG’s annual meetings. Members hail from across the country and parents from most NCAA teams are represented, said Gobourne.

“It’s more than a support group,” Gobourne said. “We girls uplift one another. when you’re one of the few in the sport and you have questions that nobody can answer about your daughter, people can come to that Facebook page and say hey, I’m having this issue, how do I handle it?” Gobourne draws on her own experience as a gym parent when speaking to others; Derrian, she said, was long the only Black gymnast in her club programs. Derrian, now a college senior,  has worked with BGDG as an ambassador since her senior year of high school.

Gregory discovered BGDG after her daughter left the sport, and, she said, parents of other Alabama gymnasts shunned her. “Just in the last year, we’ve gotten a network of friends through that organization. I’ve been able to talk through things and have people to support [us].”

Working in conjunction with Moore and Brown Girls Do Gymnastics, Kiaku is working to start a gymnastics program at an HBCU. “I really want to push for that because I know there are a lot of Black gymnasts that are going to come behind me. And I just really want that as an option for them.”

Kiaku is now a student at North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C., where she lives. “I’m really glad I got to transfer to an HBCU and experience an environment that is inclusive and that is made for me,” she said. But she misses gymnastics. “I’m just really grateful to experience being at an HBCU, but now season’s here and it kind of brings back the Saturday emotions, like, dang, I wish I was out there,” she said. “I have all the capabilities in the world, all the talent and all the drive. And all of that was taken from me. It’s bittersweet.”

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