SGA, BSU, Athletics Department address hate speech, policy review


Senior Eddie McDonald (left) and junior Judah King (right) speak at a Diversity and Inclusion panel hosted by BSU, SGA and a variety of other on-campus groups.

McKenna Howenstine|Marlin Chronicle

Representatives from the Student Government Association (SGA), Black Student Union (BSU) and Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) met with Intercollegiate Director of Athletics Andrea Hoover-Erbig during a weekly SGA meeting to discuss hate speech policies in the Athletics Department.

“We passed a resolution… to investigate these policies about hate speech at our peer institutions,” senior and SGA President Eddie McDonald said.

McDonald described how the resolution appeared on SGA’s agenda. “We met with students who were concerned about the issue,” which he said “motivated us to try to learn more about this topic and take some action to improve.”

According to McDonald, this research will seek to provide answers to a variety of questions. McDonald listed a few questions: “How do our peer institutions define hate speech? How do peer institutions provide consequences for hate speech? How do they apply due process for allegations of hate speech? And then what are the current VWU policies and procedures regarding hate speech?”

McDonald specified that this proposed investigation focuses on hate speech in privileged activities “such as honors colleges, athletics, student activities, things where you’re being a representative of the school.” He stated that the intention is to gauge “what the best practices are across peer institutions around the nation.”

The specific phrasing of the resolution states, “The Student Government will investigate the policies and practices related to hate speech at peer institutions in order to gather information regarding the potential implementation of hate speech clauses in the student handbooks of privileged activities at VWU.”

McDonald said that investigation prior to the suggestion of any sort of policy implementation helps to ensure legal precedent. Navigating legalities is often one of the biggest challenges to addressing hate speech on an institutional level.

In the case of VWU athletics programs, Hoover-Erbig said that it is already the Athletics Department’s standard to review handbooks yearly. During these reviews, the Athletics Department considers questions such as, “Do we need to look deeper into a certain policy? Do we need to change a policy? Do we need to make something more consistent?” Hoover-Erbig said.

McDonald provided his insights on the authority of SGA in suggesting policy change. “When it comes down to it, the student government is just a student union. So we, through the democratic process, represent the students’ concerns and issues, and we bring those forward to administration,” he said.

SGA Senior Senator James Johnson commented on the legislation. “Personally, what I support is research,” he said. Johnson stressed that allegations of hate speech should be addressed on a case-by-case basis, and that the school already has those policies in place. “This [SGA resolution] is just presenting our findings to the school, but there would likely be a second piece of legislation in the future that would recommend specific policy from SGA and that is when I’m personally not supportive,” he said.

Johnson described other ways in which he saw fit for SGA to address hate speech. “I thought something appropriate would have been a social media education campaign, or an event on campus or creating some sort of banner that gets hung in Batten that says ‘your words have consequences’ or something like that,” Johnson said.

Johnson elaborated by saying an opportunity to display experiences where individuals have been personally affected by the language of others, whether it be through a banner, a video, or some other form of media, would be an impactful motion from SGA to combat hate speech. “I think that would have been something we can do and that’s within our power,” Johnson said. 

Regarding his suggested approaches, Johnson said, “I think it would have had a more direct impact on our students than adding a couple sentences into our Student Handbook.”

In terms of athletics specifically, Johnson said, “I think it’s the responsibility of the athletes on said team, the coaches on said team, to create an accepting, inclusive environment, and it kind of has to go into the culture of a team.”

Campus community members have discussed the roles and expectations of various positions across campus in combating and addressing hate speech.

McDonald said that the initial collaborative meeting on the topic heavily covered Athletics policies and disciplinary actions. “We met with Director Hoover, Judah King was there representing BSU, and we just got a small group session on the way athletic policies and disability actions work, which I think for us was super insightful to help us as we move forward through this process,” McDonald said.

Junior Judah King, president of BSU, said that a meeting involving Hoover-Erbig, Associate Vice President for Campus Life and Operational Management Jason Seward and the SGA executive board helped offer an understanding that every situation is nuanced. While he said that he acknowledges the truth in the complexities of the topic, King sees the benefits of “a more definite and stringent outcome.”

King said, “I am appreciative of the case-by-case basis, but at the end of the day, students, athletes, if somebody is serving as a representative of the school, they should know that hate speech isn’t permitted.”

King spoke on the expectations of student leaders. “Being in student leadership or just being a representative of this school, you have to be held to a higher standard,” he said. King stressed that these expectations must extend to Athletics.

“We’re a school first, not a sports franchise,” King said.

McDonald echoed King’s emphasis on disciplinary distinction for privileged activities. Although SGA’s initiative does not suggest specific policy changes, McDonald believes it is still important to explore ways of incorporating hate speech standards more directly into policy.

“At the moment, the Athletic Department, their disciplinary procedures work almost parallel and in reaction to the Campus Life disciplinary procedures, so they are only informed if something goes through ResLife,” he said. McDonald explained that while these policies do exist, he would like “to see the standards raised for privileged activities.”

The VWU Student Handbook states that the University reserves the right to maintain their policies, even if it means removing an individual from the community. “In order to fulfill its functions as an educational institution and to protect all members of the University community, Virginia Wesleyan University has the right to maintain order within the University and to exclude persons who disrupt the educational process,” the handbook states.

In regard to expression, the handbook states, “The University prohibits expression considered unlawful or that which violates institutional policy or disrupts essential University operations.”

The initiative SGA proposed was prompted in part by larger discussions of hate speech among student-athletes. Senior Joey Gray, captain of the Men’s Golf team, discussed hate speech allegations with Athletics officials and SGA following a personal incident at the end of January. After an incident involving a white student-athlete saying the N-word while off campus with friends, Gray brought up the issue to officials in the Athletics office.

For Gray, the use of the N-word was offensive. “I don’t feel like that’s a positive word. I think it’s very derogatory,” Gray said. “I try to carry myself in the best appropriate way that not just as an African American, but as an adult could. And I don’t think anyone should be using that word.”

While Gray wasn’t with the other individual during the situation, he heard about it through friends. “Some of his teammates who are my friends had told me that he had that whole debacle leaving the bar, where he had made a racially charged statement,” he said.

Given that the incident occurred off campus, there was an extra layer of complexity when Gray moved to seek action within Athletics. According to the VWU Student Handbook, “The University does not attempt to regulate, nor does it take responsibility for the off-campus behavior of its students.”

It also stipulates that, “The University will, however, take action against students who’s off campus behavior impedes or disrupts the University community and/or undermines or threatens the welfare of the University or members of the University community.”

The student and his coaches declined to comment on the incident.

This wasn’t the first time Gray discussed instances of potentially offensive language with Athletics coaches. According to Gray, a former assistant coach for the Men’s and Women’s Golf team was accused of using the N-word in front of other members of the Golf team.

Gray heard about the incident from his teammates. “Obviously, since I wasn’t there, I don’t know who to believe,” he said.

Following the incident, Gray spoke to Tom Hall, head coach of the Men’s and Women’s Golf teams. “We talked about it, and he asked me what I thought should be done,” Gray said. 

Gray said the assistant coach eventually apologized. “I’d say it took about a week, actually probably about two weeks,” Gray said. “But eventually, yes, there was an apology and an understanding that this is wrong, and we shouldn’t be doing this… and I was very appreciative.”

According to Gray, part of being an athlete is representing the university. “When I go out and play golf, I’m supposed to wear that Virginia Wesleyan little nameplate, and a little name tag, and represent my school not only in the ODAC, but in the NCAA,” he said. 

However, Gray’s experiences have shaped his personal feelings about the Athletics Department and the association he has with it. “When I hear and feel like there are people who are also wearing that same Virginia Wesleyan nametag or plate on their jersey, and I know that they don’t uphold the same values that I do, and I know they don’t uphold the same values that the school projects itself to hold, to me, that’s disappointing,” Gray said.

Gray was adamant that the privilege of being a student-athlete is one he doesn’t want to share with those who use offensive language. “It’s a privilege to play a sport,” Gray said. “I don’t feel like I should have to share that privilege with someone who promotes hate speech, who promotes hate, who does not like people who look like me. I don’t feel comfortable having to do that.”

While neither of these instances were ruled as hate speech, they sparked conversation over policy and definitions of hate speech.

Information sourced from “Free Speech on Campus” by Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman.

Rhian Tramontana|Marlin Chronicle 

According to the American Library Association (ALA), “There is no legal definition for ‘hate speech’ under U.S. law… Generally, however, hate speech is any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons on the basis of race, religion, skin color, sexual identity, gender identity, ethnicity, disability, or national origin.”

 Hate speech is also protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The ALA explains that “hate speech can only be criminalized when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group.”

The freedom of expression is similarly guaranteed to students at Virginia Wesleyan. The VWU Student Handbook states, “…our community recognizes that, on occasion, some members of the community may view the expression of certain ideas of others as offensive, insensitive, or even harmful.”

However, the need to create a safe environment for all community members balances this sentiment. “An essential feature of this community is an environment in which all students, faculty, administrators, and staff are able to study and work free from bias and harassment,” the handbook states.

Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman published a book with Yale University Press entitled “Free Speech on Campus.” In this, they explained that campuses can’t restrict speech without cause. According to a graphic from the book, “A campus can’t censor or punish speech merely because a person or group considers it offensive or hateful.”

McDonald also spoke on limitations surrounding the repercussions of using hate speech. “We can’t take away your constitutional rights… but if you’re participating in hate speech, you maybe should not be a representative of the school,” McDonald said.

The issue of hate speech and freedom of expression is complex, and in the Athletics Department, there is a reliance on all students and coaches to set a culture of inclusivity. “I encourage every coach to have a philosophy and to think about the core values they want their teams to exude,” Hoover-Erbig said.

According to the VWU Student-Athlete Handbook, “Student-athletes are to discourage bigotry, respect differences and learn from others’ ideas, values and experiences.”

Hoover-Erbig acknowledged the importance of diversity and inclusivity within the Athletics Department. “I think our student-athletes are a direct reflection of the diversity on our campus. And so, you know, I think it’s something we take seriously, and we want to celebrate our diversity,” she said.

Every year, Hoover-Erbig holds meetings with each team to go over expectations and responsibilities of being a student-athlete. “We have a compliance meeting every year, once a year to go through NCAA compliance, but also in those meetings, we talk about expectations of being a student-athlete,” she said.

Similarly to Gray, Hoover-Erbig discussed the importance of upholding university values, especially when representing the Athletics Department. “I talk about how far of a reach our student-athletes have, how far they travel with Virginia Wesleyan on their chest, and when they go places, they are representing our institution and how important it is for them to represent us well,” Hoover-Erbig said.

With all the effort to encourage positive values, Hoover-Erbig said that the focus is on growth. “The best parts of my job when I was a coach, and now I’m the athletic director, is to see the growth that happens in people from when they show up on campus as a first-year to when they walk across the stage as a graduate,” Hoover-Erbig said.

The emphasis on growth extends especially to when student-athletes make mistakes. “People are going to make mistakes and make poor choices, right? Absolutely, they will,” Hoover-Erbig said. “But it’s our job to walk them through that and help them see where, what, how it could have been handled differently, how they can grow as a person from those experiences and work into the expectation of being a student-athlete and taking seriously that privilege.”

Senior Alex Moody, a representative on SAAC and a member of the Men’s Soccer team, highlighted the importance of the privilege of being a student-athlete.

“Playing sport is a privilege in college and life,” Moody said. “Obviously, you have to have the right attitude. You can’t just go do whatever you want.”

Hoover-Erbig explained that when disciplinary actions are necessary, the Athletics Department responds once university action has been taken. However, not all incidents require discipline on a university level. “If it’s something that is not a university issue, but that is happening and needs to be addressed by the coaching staff or the Athletic Department, we are in communication about that,” Hoover-Erbig said.

While Athletics does follow university action and policies, they also have the option of increasing disciplinary action. “The penalties outlined in the conduct in our handbook are the minimum penalties. So we always have the ability to increase those consequences if we would like to,” Hoover-Erbig said.

When discussing disciplinary action within Athletics, Hoover-Erbig meets with the respective coaches and discusses the issue on a case-by-case basis when there isn’t a set response outlined by Athletics policy. “There are so many different situations that occur throughout an academic year that are not the same,” Hoover-Erbig said. “There are details of each situation that need to be taken into account, need to be talked about, need to be understood by the people who are making the decisions of what the consequence is going to be.”

Decisions on consequences rest with Hoover-Erbig and coaches, but sometimes athletes themselves can play a role by discussing their perspective. “Captains have a perspective and a lot of times have the ability to go to their coaches and talk… It’s part of that responsibility,” Hoover-Erbig said. “But ultimately, the decision will rest with either the head coach or the head coach and myself.”

In cases where students are being accused of using offensive or disruptive language, the discussion of consequences complicates. “If it’s going to affect the student-athlete experience or even student experience, then I think there should be talks about how can we prevent these things from happening again, or maybe have consequences set in place,” Moody said.

Moody acknowledged the inherent difficulties when a student makes a claim about another student. “It’s like a he said, she said thing,” Moody said. “It’s just hard to punish someone without any real evidence.”

McDonald recognized that difficulty as well and emphasized the need for proper due process. “One thing we’ve talked about a lot in student government meetings has been the importance of due process in regards to allegations of hate speech, and the principle of innocent until proven guilty,” McDonald said.

Although disagreements about disciplinary approaches persist, each student representative emphasized the privilege that comes with representing the university.

By Lily Reslink & Rhian Tramontana &