Gators vow change after former Florida gymnasts detail experiences of racism on team

By Adam Silverstein
June 6, 2020
Gators vow change after former Florida gymnasts detail experiences of racism on team
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Image Credit: UAA

Over the last few days, as marches protesting police brutality and social injustice continue raging nationwide, a couple former members of the Florida Gators gymnastics team have taken to social media to share experiences they had while in college that were distressing to them as African-American females.

Kennedy Baker (2015-18) finished her career with the Gators as an 11-time All-American, three-time All-SEC selection and three-time SEC champion who was also named the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2015. She kept her comments brief in a single tweet sent Monday as she addressed how many college programs had not spoken up regarding the death of George Floyd and issues that protesters have been addressing.

“Very on brand for a lot of these college teams to stay silent, kinda like how my own team asked for my silence when they were saying racist things to me, and calling me racist names. You guys can’t put out a statement of support? Like bare minimum?” she wrote.

Florida head gymnastics coach Jenny Rowland, who took over the team in Baker’s freshman season, appears to have reached out to her that day over her tweet — and Baker was clearly receptive to the conversation.

“Thank you for the honest conversation on Monday. I listened, I learned and vow to continue to learn to be the best coach I can be for my student-athletes,” Rowland wrote in a Twitter reply. “I have and will always love and support you and I will continue to grow and stand beside you against racism and injustice.”

Baker responded: “Thank you for listening. I appreciate the honest conversation and welcome the changes for the athletes to come.”

On Friday, Kytra Hunter (2012-15) — one of the greatest athletes in the history of Gators athletics — went into far greater detail about her experiences with Florida gymnastics. Hunter placed blame for her incidents mostly on her teammates at the time and noted that she

“When I think of my time at UF, there was a lot of good, but still, I experienced racism from my own teammates,” Hunter wrote. “… They said things like ‘are you going to cater fried chicken and watermelon at your wedding?’ OR ‘we saved you a seat in the back of the bus’ OR repeatedly saying the ‘N word’ as if they had no idea that it should not be said. They would immediately defend their statements by explaining how they love black people like Whitney Houston or Barack Obama as if that gave them a pass to say what they wanted. Those things are offensive. They are ignorant. They are racist. They would ask me specific questions about my race and then laugh at what they considered ‘jokes’.

“… I’ve been told my teammates were going out in a specific location and that it wasn’t ‘my scene’ or told the reason I didn’t get invited out to a place was because I ‘don’t usually go where the team likes to hang out.’ What does that even mean? That hurt; especially when it was said in front of a group of people who look more like them, than like me.”

Hunter continued: “I constantly shared my experiences and my complaints fell on deaf ears. It wasn’t until my senior year that my head coach finally could tell that I had simply had enough! She coordinated a ‘talk’ with my team, but it honestly felt like another day in a classroom on a topic no one seemed to take seriously. It felt like they were simply checking a box so I would be quiet.

“After that, I received insincere ‘apologies’ from teammates that included statements like ‘you know I’m not racist’. At that point, I guess all was supposed to be forgotten. … I remember sitting in the stadium crying. Crushed. Crushed to the point that I could not wait to be off the team. My days became a blur. The racial slurs did not stop. I couldn’t understand why their inexcusable behavior was okay. Why was it okay to tell me “they weren’t educated enough” and do (in my opinion) little to nothing about it?”

Hunter — a four-time NCAA champion, 25-time All-American, four-time All-SEC selection, the 2015 SEC Gymnast of the Year and the Honda Award Winner in 2012 and 2015 — clarified that nothing she said in her letter was about the current team at Florida. “I do want to make clear there are no current UF gymnastics staff or team members that were involved in my experiences at UF still with the team.”

She also wrote directly to Rowland. “Thank you @JennyRowlandUF for making a change. That means everything, knowing you are doing what is right!”

Nevertheless, it is a damning account of how Gators gymnastics was run in the final four seasons under head coach Rhonda Faehn, who left Florida after the program won its third straight NCAA championship in Hunter’s senior season.

Faehn provided the following response on Facebook: “I recognize that I should have been more aware. When this was brought to my attention, our staff immediately brought in a specialist to meet with the team to have an open and honest dialogue, education and to confront everything head on. What I heavily regret is not continuing to ask questions to reinforce the education and communication.”

UF has not addressed Hunter’s allegations directly, and her former teammates have not spoken up regarding her comments at this time. The Gators gymnastics team and Rowland did release a pair of statements promoting racial justice and equality on Wednesday, two days prior to Hunter’s tweet. The team statement was written by the gymnasts.

Trinity Thomas, a sophomore gymnast at Florida who is a 10-time All-American and two-time All-SEC selection who won the 2020 SEC Gymnast of the Year and 2019 SEC Freshman of the Year awards, spoke up on behalf of the program on Wednesday — also before Hunter’s statement.

“UF gymnastics has been nothing less than a blessing to me since the day I stepped foot on campus,” she wrote. “I recognize that there have been problems on past teams. I am lucky to have had such positive experiences as a black collegiate athlete. I know that there are many athletes that have not been as fortunate as me. My team and I have always been supportive of each other. We know right from wrong, and we need to do more of the right thing. We as a team are committed to using our platform to make a change.”

Thomas also noted that the communication from Florida gymnastics has been a slow process because it was “a jarring and emotional week” and that all 18 members of the team were consulted to allow their voices to be heard before something was shared publicly. A source told OnlyGators.com that, following Rowland’s conversation with Baker, the coach got her gymnasts together for a call to discuss the situation.

“We decided together that this was going to be a collective process where every voice is heard and taken into account before an official statement is made. We wanted the message from Gators Gymnastics to be as authentic and personal as possible,” Thomas added.

“… One of the reasons I love UF so much is because of the heart this team has. We decided that we are going to be a part of this change. We are going to go all in. This is not a one-time thing. We have committed to making a cultural change. Words are better than silence, but actions are better than words.”

All of this comes amid nationwide protests — entering their 12th day Saturday — following the death of George Floyd, who was in police custody over Memorial Day weekend in Minneapolis when a now-former police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. That ex-cop has been charged with second-degree murder, and three others at the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

While the past cannot be changed, the women currently involved in the Florida gymnastics program — gymnasts, coaches, staff — all have he opportunity to shape the future. And from the early comments made by Rowland and Thomas, it appears as if the Gators are committed to doing just that.

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