Former top-ranked UC Davis gymnast Alexis Brown speaks out about racism on team

Review may be conducted by Harassment and Discrimination Prevention Program on campus

Alexis Brown, a decorated alumna of the UC Davis women’s gymnastics team who graduated in 2018, recently came forward about her experiences with racism and microaggressions on the gymnastics program. 

Brown, who was an animal science major, took to Instagram on June 2 to express these concerns following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis. For Brown, this incident signified an “accumulation of […] 400 years of oppression” in the Black community, and the national tragedy inspired her to speak out about her experiences as a Black woman in the athletics department. This led to an article in the Davis Enterprise detailing the difficulties she faced in the program.

On June 1, UC Davis Athletics Director Kevin Blue issued a statement on behalf of the department, responding to Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests nationwide. Blue acknowledged that while he had tried to work against racial discrimination, he could never fully understand it due to the color of his skin. 

“UC Davis Athletics has a history of building ‘trust, unity, and togetherness’ among people from all backgrounds,” Blue wrote. “As an organization, we have tried to acknowledge that racism exists in sports and be an athletics department that works against it. However, over the weekend, I came to the realization that we haven’t done enough […] We recognize the tremendous emotional and psychological impact that these discriminatory tragedies have created for our African American student-athletes, coaches, and staff.” 

Indeed, particularly disconcerting to Brown in her early years at UC Davis was the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. 

“That was devastating to me, to my mental health,” Brown said. “And no one in college talked about it or was understanding the gravity of the situation.” 

During her first two years at the university, more police killings followed. Brown became aware that other Black athletes were struggling with current events, too. 

Meanwhile, on the gymnastics team, Brown was facing microaggressions from some of her teammates. 

“Even on my official recruit visit [to UC Davis] as a high school student, I was asked by the team if I was adopted because my mother is white,” Brown said. “I was asked where I was from, and I told them I was from California.They were like, ‘Where are you from, like really?’ [I was like], ‘I don’t know, because my ancestors were enslaved.’” 

Similar comments persisted throughout her time on the team. Brown said that older girls that she “respected as a freshman” would comment that she was “really pretty” or “a really good gymnast for a Black girl.” Some people also used the N-word when referring to Black athletes on other teams. Brown added that while these remarks were “hurtful”, she “didn’t feel like [she] had the strength to speak up against them.” 

Members of UC Davis Athletics were unaware that the N-word was being used by team members, Kevin Blue said in an email to The California Aggie. 

“The Enterprise article contained new information and allegations that did not arise during our work to support Alexis in 2017,” Blue wrote. “One especially troubling new allegation is the report that the N-word was used ‘very regularly’ by student-athletes. Any manner of hate speech is not tolerated at UC Davis, and regularly occurring use of racist language is obviously particularly problematic.”

 Allegations raised in the article are being reviewed by a university process separate from Intercollegiate Athletics (ICA) and Blue said he looks forward to the outcome of that review.

Blue explained that a review — based on Brown’s allegations in the Davis Enterprise article — would likely be undertaken by the Harassment and Discrimination Prevention Program (HDAPP) on campus, which is outside of the athletics department.

During her junior year, Brown was inspired by former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick’s practice of kneeling during the national anthem in a public call for racial equality. She decided to use her platform as a college athlete to speak out about the injustices Black people were facing both on-campus and off. Her actions were met with fierce backlash, however.

“I remember after my first meet no one noticed at all, so I thought okay, maybe it wouldn’t be as big of a deal as I thought it would,” Brown recalled. “I didn’t tell my coaches and teammates beforehand. But the second meet was a home meet, and I kneeled again, and people were staring with very confused faces.”

Brown’s experience on the team worsened during that period. 

“One time in particular I went up to a couple of parents that were mocking me in the stands after the meet, to see if they wanted to know about the protests,” Brown recalled. “I thought I might as well have a conversation with [them], why not open up the dialogue? I had parents jumping in, telling me how disrespectful it was to kneel and telling me to smile and take my award and just walk away. My teammates and coaches said I was being disrespectful and causing violence.” 

In 2017, Brown’s coach, John Lavallee, expressed support for Brown’s right to free expression in The California Aggie, describing her as an “intelligent, articulate individual.” 

However, Brown alleges that after the first home meet she kneeled in, Lavallee expressed frustration with her and accused her of setting a bad example for young gymnasts and children, mentioning a possible backlash from the parent community and gymnastics clubs. 

“He didn’t understand why I was doing it in the first place and when I tried to explain he was really dismissive,” Brown said. “Having that first interaction with the protest set the tone for how much worse it would become throughout the 2017-2018 season.” 

Brown believes that her position as the top-ranked player on the team prevented her from being asked to leave. Despite “silent hostility” from some teammates — they would move away from her during stretches or avoid her during meals when they were traveling — she didn’t bring her concerns to the Title IX commission on campus, fearing that no one would do anything about them. While some teammates would help her as she knelt and sent supportive texts to her after meets, Brown said they feared “stirring up trouble” and that these acts of support were limited to “the background.” 

Given how close she’d been with many of her teammates, training “together 20 hours a week, 5 days a week,” this presented a dilemma of its own. 

“It’s difficult because I want to like them as a person, [but at the same time they were] complicit in racism,” Brown said. 

Since then, Brown said, several of these teammates, who she “still [has] love for,” have reached out to her and apologized for their previous hesitance to support her publicly. 

Brown says that she privately messaged Lavallee twice to no avail before publicizing her concerns on Instagram this month.

She added that they had a productive conversation on June 16. Lavallee confirmed in an email that they had spoken, but asked that the contents of their discussion remain private. He referred to the 2017 Aggie article, in which he said that he and his colleagues “voiced full support of her freedom of expression.”

Katy Nogaki, another former member of the team and a human development major who graduated in 2017, said in an email that she acknowledged and respected Brown’s work surrounding social justice issues and recognized the need to address these problems. She disagreed, however, with the way that Brown portrayed Lavallee and the UC Davis gymnastics team in the media. She was particularly concerned with Brown’s allegation in the Davis Enterprise article that some of her teammates were concerned about Black faculty and students attending Senior Night and spoke to her about it.

“During my five years as a member of the team (2012–2017), Alexis never personally expressed to me any of her concerns, hardships, difficulties, problems, etc., with regard to her experiencing any type of racism by the coaching staff or teammates,” Nogaki said. “If she had done so, I know I would have taken the time to try to understand her, empathize with her, and help her to the best of my ability, and I would still do the same today.” 

Other members of the team could not be reached for comment.

On June 7, the UC Davis gymnastics team posted on their Facebook page, pledged to be anti-racist and expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The following day, Lavallee posted on the page as well. 

“As the Head Coach of UC Davis Gymnastics, I firmly stand with the Black Lives Matter movement,” he wrote. “We must use this opportunity to implement strong and lasting change. While I do not have all the answers, I will continue to look inward, listen and learn so we can move forward together. As a team, we will seize the opportunity to reject racism, celebrate diversity and commit to a safe, inclusive and welcoming environment.”

Responding to Brown’s allegations in an email, Kevin Blue wrote that Athletics “expressed regret for failing to take proactive anti-racist action and for at times not providing enough support to our Black student-athletes.” He said that his June 11 communication outlines “action steps, and future steps that we are planning to take, to increase the intensity of our efforts to combat racism.” 

The athletics department has also publicly committed to a more rigorous diversity plan, outlined in the June 11 statement. Dwight Smith, the director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), is currently involved in the athletic department’s efforts to prevent these incidents from occurring again. Smith, who played for the UC Davis football team, was hired as an advisor in 2018 and stepped into the DEI role in 2019. 

“As a black UC Davis football alum, I deeply appreciate the brave knee [Brown] took and her unwavering commitment to awareness-building and progress, both during her time at UC Davis and now,” Smith said via email. “Since I joined the department we have been taking aggressive action to systematize our department’s holistic commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion which includes our resolve to combat anti-black racism specifically.”

Brown commented that while she appreciates Smith’s hiring as a “great first step,” diversity work should not be solely his responsibility as a Black man.

She hopes that white members of the department will help “amplify Black voices,” perhaps by reaching out to Black athletes individually to gauge what their experiences have been.

“The [department] is trying to […] make great change, but we have to remember that we can’t ask white folks to head the Black revolution no matter how well-intentioned they are,” Brown said. 

She also expressed concern about the scarcity of Black coaches, staff and professors at the university, and emphasized that the racism she faced isn’t unique to the UC Davis gymnastics team.

 “Although my experiences were in gymnastics, [they also extend] to the community at large at UC Davis,” Brown said. 

Written by: Rebecca Bihn-Wallace — campus@theaggie.org


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