Tia Kiaku addressed claims of racist behavior with University of Alabama leadership, gymnastics coaches and fellow gymnasts. In all instances, she felt she was not taken seriously.
Kiaku said she confronted a teammate about use of the N-word during a practice and was told it was a joke. At a practice, she said, an assistant coach approached the program’s three black gymnasts in a vault drill together and asked, “What is this, the back of the bus?” She reported that incident and three UA offices got involved in an investigation that ensued.
Kiaku took her frustrations to Instagram and Twitter on Tuesday, airing her concerns of racism in the program. She posted about the incident with the assistant coach as an example, but the former UA gymnast related further incidents in an interview with The Tuscaloosa News.
“After the investigation, I was told the coach that made the remarks had something on his record and it was basically deemed a bad joke,” Kaiku said Wednesday.
Kiaku did not identify the coach in the social media post, but told The Tuscaloosa News it was Bill Lorenz, adding the incident occurred in a practice near the end of the fall semester. She also identified the other two gymnasts participating in the practice drill as Makarri Doggette and Sania Mitchell. Doggette and Mitchell both remained with the team for the 2020 season; Kiaku left the team after the fall semester, before the 2020 season began in January.
Lorenz issued a statement to The Tuscaloosa News through UA media relations:
“This has been a learning experience that has impacted me both personally and professionally, and I will continue to learn,” he said in the statement. “What was intended to be a lighthearted comment ended up having an offensive impact, and I regret that. It hurts me that I hurt anyone. I care so much about this team and our student-athletes, and I believe they know that. I’ll admit that I have many flaws, but I believe they also know that I had no intention of hurting anyone and that I don’t support treating anyone differently based on their race. I’m grateful to be part of a team that provides the opportunity to learn from each other and grow together when mistakes are made. That’s something I value and will never take for granted. I will be better. I am genuinely sorry.”
In a statement to The Tuscaloosa News, UA Director of Athletics Greg Byrne said once the complaint was received, it was immediately reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity, UA’s Title IX office and the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Kiaku said she was, “very involved,” in those process.
Ryan Bradley, UA’s interim vice president for strategic communications, also issued a statement: “We cannot get into specific details, but we can say a thorough investigation of all allegations brought forward was completed by the University. Any allegations that were substantiated in the course of our review were addressed appropriately.”
“It was on my part that the investigation started,” Kiaku said. “They asked me if I wanted the investigation, I said yes, and also my mother got involved. She was the one to talk to the head of diversity and inclusion, and from there it went to Title IX.
“Looking back, I didn’t realize that I had gone through these microaggresions, implicit bias and underlying racism until I really sat back and examined by experience again. There have been multiple times where I heard the girls say the N-word, the gymnasts.”
Kiaku said one day she was pulled aside in practice by UA head coach Dana Duckworth, who was going through UA’s history of outstanding black gymnasts. When the coach mentioned Aja Sims, currently a volunteer assistant coach at UA who finished her career in 2017, Kiaku said Duckworth said of Sims, “But she’s not really black and she wasn’t raised black.”
Kiaku said at one practice, a senior did not want to listen to the music everyone else was picking. Kiaku said the senior wanted to listen to country music and voiced her frustration by turning to Kiaku and saying, “I’m tired of listening to your rap music.”
Kiaku also related an instance of a teammate struggling with the pronunciation of a word. When Kiaku chimed in with the correct pronunciation, Kiaku said the teammate replied, “I don’t tell you how to say your people’s language or your people’s words.”“It’s been a lot of things that have bottled up that I’m looking back at now thinking that’s inappropriate,” Kiaku said. “The team has voiced that there’s problems in the team, because we’ve had multiple meetings. After the last meeting we had, it was not facilitated by administration, coaching staff or anyone, it was us having the meeting.
“I think that was inappropriate because this is a very sensitive topic and it should have been guided by someone that could help us with that situation, but it wasn’t. After that conversation, it kind of went left (unresolved). The girls stopped talking to me, the coaches stopped taking to me.
“Girls didn’t like it because we were talking about things that they said. One of the girls I addressed who had said the N-word, I mapped why you can’t say the N-word and she said it was just a joke. That’s part of a theme of this: you guys are saying whatever you want, and it’s hurtful, what’s being said, and it’s not a joke. It’s not funny. None of this is a funny issue.”
UA released a statement which it attributed to “UA gymnasts” which said, in part: “We can think of no better term to describe Alabama Gymnastics than, ‘One heart.’ This is a group of amazing individuals with varying backgrounds that come together to form an incredibly special team. We stand by each other, and we love each other. None of us are perfect. We’ve all made mistakes, and we continue to learn from each other every day.”
After the team meeting, Kiaku said she had little to no communication with her teammates or the coaching staff until she was called to Duckworth’s office. She said she did not know UA’s deputy director of athletics/chief diversity officer, Tiffini Grimes, would be in the meeting until she arrived.
“She was assuming — because she had not talked to me at this point — that I didn’t want to be people’s friends, that I didn’t want to sit with them in dining halls, but she never really addressed the problems of the team,” Kiaku said. “That’s what really set with me.”
Kiaku felt it important to point out that after the 2019 season, her lone as a gymnast at UA, she was the gymnast chosen for the Unsung Hero Award, an award UA started that year and awarded to one athlete from each team that, according to the release, was given to student-athletes, “lauded for making a substantive yet often unrecognized contribution to their team’s success in ways that can be difficult to measure.”
Shortly after the meeting with Duckworth and Grimes, Kiaku began seriously considering leaving the team. Kiaku said she later had meetings with teammates, including one with just her African-American teammates that solidified her decision.
“One of the black gymnasts was asking me, ‘Why do you even want to be on the team anymore? We’ve already moved forward, and if you came into the gym it would be a distraction,’” Kiaku said. “I felt like they didn’t want me on the team anymore.”
In the time since Kiaku left the team before the 2020 season, she has looked for a new destination. She has been in the transfer portal since Feb. 28, but fears she will have difficulty if programs reach out to Duckworth and the UA staff for more information.
“What motivated me to speak up about my experience is me wanting to be able to write my own story,” she said. “I felt like because I haven’t spoken out, I allowed the head coach to write my story for me. Honestly, I wanted to raise awareness to this because, from what I’ve been seeing lately, this is happening in more than just Alabama programs. So I went to raise awareness and I wanted my situation to be handled accordingly. Because from what I have experienced at Alabama, it hasn’t been handled how it should have been.
“I want every black girl who goes through Alabama’s doors to not go through what I went through. I want everyone to feel safe to say what they want to say, to voice their concerns and not to feel like they’re going to be persecuted or ostracized.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson