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Port: UND handled controversy involving volleyball players poorly

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UND's Julia Vetter (11) celebrates a Fighting Hawks point with teammate Lexi Ahrens (7) during a 2019 home match against Western Illinois. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
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MINOT, N.D. — What happens when we become so concerned with social justice we put actual justice in the back seat?

Earlier this year, in February, there was controversy on the University of North Dakota campus when two of the school's students, also members of the volleyball team, were accused of racism. A video of Julia Vetter and Brynn Nieukirk, both white women, singing a song that has a racial slur in its lyrics was posted online.

The girls sent that video to a friend of theirs, who is Black, and it was subsequently obtained by third parties and posted online.

Also posted were screen captures purporting to show Vetter making racist comments on Snapchat.

That incident seemed to blow over quickly, at least from the public's perspective, and both women remained at the school and on the volleyball team.

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But earlier this month, UND used an image of Nieukirk in marketing for its athletics programs, prompting criticism from UND student and football player Jaxson Turner .

Turner, whose play has drawn attention from the NFL , said in his post he was "extremely disappointed in @undsports for using an athlete that was filmed using racial slurs... This is never acceptable but especially during a time like this. This video was brought to your attention and this athlete shouldn't be the face of UND athletics."

Turner's criticism, coming as it did from a high-profile athlete and amid the tumultuous protests over the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, prompted a swift response from the school, which apologized for using Nieukirk's image.

After Turner's tweets, both Nieukirk and Vetter left the volleyball team and UND .

UND officials, in statements sent to the news media, made it seem as though they were part of the decision to have Neiukirk and Vetter leave.

But the girls, who now have to live the rest of their lives with their names in news articles about racism, are telling a different story.

One deeply unflattering for UND.

After several conversations with Vetter, as well as reviewing a written statement she provided, it seems clear that she and Nieukirk were victims of a harassment campaign perpetrated by other student-athletes while UND officials offered little in the way of protection.

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The school's decision to make it seem as though Nieukirk and Vetter's departure from the school was a choice they were involved with, after previously doing very little to communicate to the public the facts of the incident, is a glaring example of UND's laxity in protecting two of its students.

"In the winter of 2020, a racially insensitive video emerged featuring two UND volleyball student-athletes," UND volleyball coach Jeremiah Tiffin said in a June 5 statement . "When I became aware of the situation, UND athletics investigated and addressed the student behavior. After much thought and consideration, it has been mutually agreed upon by me and the two student-athletes that they will not return to the UND volleyball program. Today's decision considers recent events and sincere conversations I have had with these students and we feel that this is the best solution for all involved. I remain committed to further educating our student-athletes on diversity and inclusion and doing better on behalf of our institution."

Vetter disputes this.

"The coach never once asked us to leave the team," she told me. She also provided me with a resignation letter she sent to Tiffin on June 4 , the day before his self-serving statement to the news media. In the letter she describes her disappointment in UND's handling of the situation and identifies her reason for leaving as concern for her safety:

"There was a lot of harassment online," from the public as well as other UND students, Vetter told me, adding that she left behind an academic scholarship she had earned for the school's nursing program.

Far from being asked to leave, Vetter says the school assured her she had not violated any policies.

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She said school officials told her to "stay quiet" about the situation and "let it blow over."

She also provided me with a copy of a June 9 letter from UND Dean Alexander Pokornowski, confirming that a review by the school found no misconduct.

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A June 9 emailed letter sent to Julia Vetter by University of North Dakota Dean Alexander Pokornowski (provided by Vetter)

UND spokesman David Dodds confirmed this as a part of a response to my inquiry about Vetter's claims. The school provided their answers to my questions only after requiring a signed release from Vetter exempting them from liability under student privacy laws.

"Ms. Vetter did not violate policies of UND's Code of Student Life," he told me.

"Ms. Vetter has not been expelled from UND nor was she asked to leave UND or the volleyball program," he added.

Did UND ask Vetter to stay quiet so that this controversy could blow over? "Students are never prohibited from exercising their rights to free speech as individuals not representing the University," Dodds said, which isn't exactly an answer to the question.

Vetter also says that messages purporting to be from her on social media were the result of someone else accessing her social media accounts, a claim she backs up with a screenshot of a phone notification from Feb. 24, the date of the original incident, indicating a new login to her Twitter account.

She told me another party similarly accessed her Snapchat account.

EMBED: VetterTwitterLogIn.PNG

Images purporting to be screen captures of Snapchat messages sent by Vetter in which she describes making up new words based on the n-word slur with Nieukirk appeared on Twitter.

"When I first brought this to the attention of the athletics department, our compliance officer told me the phone in that picture with the fake message is a football player's phone," Vetter told me.

Dodds told me the school didn't review this claim. "There was no complaint filed by Ms. Vetter, therefore the University did not investigate," Dodds said.

Dodds refused to answer when I asked if there was any investigation into potential misconduct from football players, or any other person associated with the school when it comes to gaining access to Julia's social media accounts and misrepresenting messages from her to the public. "Given the Federal Education Rights & Privacy Act, the University cannot share additional information beyond what we have already shared in this email," he told me.

That protection is ironic given how publicly Nieukirk and Vetter have been tied to this story.

What we're left with are two young women, good students and fine athletes by all accounts, who have had the trajectory of their lives altered because they recorded video of themselves singing a popular hip-hop song by a Black artist the lyrics of which included the n-word, as songs in that genre often do.

Vetter remembers the song being a clean version without the profanity and racial slurs, but Nieukirk suggests it wasn't in her account posted on Twitter.

Either way, outside of that video, there is zero reliable evidence of any sort of misconduct or racial animus from Vetter or Nieukirk. Which is no doubt why UND, after reviewing the matter, concluded there was no violation of their policies governing student conduct.

But why didn't the school emphasize that publicly?

Why did they allow Nieukirk and Vetter to be publicly vilified when there were exculpatory facts in their possession?

I suspect that, in this fraught moment of deep racial tension, the school concluded that Nieukirk's and Vetter's reputations were a small price to pay for avoiding criticism from social justice activists.

We might also conclude that, while we talk a lot about the privilege white people enjoy in our society, on college campuses, there is another sort of privilege which transcends racial lines.

The one enjoyed by football players.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a news reporter, columnist, and podcast host for the Forum News Service. He has an extensive background in investigations and public records. He has covered political events in North Dakota and the upper Midwest for two decades. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com. Click here to subscribe to his Plain Talk podcast.
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