AUBURN — Coach Jeff Graba issued an apology Tuesday night after three former Auburn gymnasts spoke out about things they experienced during their time with the program.
Kennedy Finster, A'Miracal Phillips and Telah Black — all of whom are black — alleged in separate Instagram posts that they dealt with racial injustice and were treated differently than their teammates.
"Being an Auburn gymnast is sparkly leotards, TV appearances, private jets, long workouts, ice baths," Finster wrote. "But for me and my black teammates, it was also this: I couldn't hang out with my black teammates without 'jokes' of segregation being made. We had to code switch to make our team feel more comfortable. If we slipped up and relaxed around each other, we were told by staff to stop talking like thugs; speak correctly.'
"When we told our teammates their use of the N word so freely in person and on social media was unacceptable, it went in one ear and out the other; they didn't stop. Our feelings didn't matter."
Finster never competed for the Tigers, but was on the team for four years ending in 2018. Phillips competed in double-digit meets on vault every season from 2017-19. Black competed in three meets as a sophomore in 2017, but did not compete in 2018 and said she was told before the end of her junior season that she would not be a part of the team as a senior.
"I asked why and what I had done," Black wrote. "The answer I received, 'If you don't know what you did, then I can't help you.'
"At one of the first season meets in 2018, the team was all walking around and I wanted to speak to the black teammates and me being me, I said, 'black girls over here.' I didn't mean it in any derogatory way towards anyone else, but my teammates took offense to those words and reported this to the head coach. Later, when we returned to campus, I was suspended for a week and was told I had one more chance or I was off the team."
That incident took place during Finster's senior season. After it was over, Finster said they felt it was a good time to speak to the athletic department, but teammates found out and said "that if we tried to get the head coach in trouble or called him a racist that they would make sure she didn't get her spot back."
Finster said she shared her story "not to be malicious or spread hate," but rather to educate. They're the first gymnasts from Auburn to speak out, but not the first in the sport or across college athletics — Alabama's Tia Kiaku did the same, as did gymnasts from Florida and Ohio State, among others.
In his apology Tuesday, Graba said he appreciated his former gymnasts authenticity when they said "they did not feel supported or treated the way a member of the Auburn family should be."
"I am very thankful to these student-athletes for sharing their experiences to help me improve the program for future generations," Graba wrote. "The first step in addressing any concerns about our program is to have open dialogue. Through valuable discussion, I've had the opportunity to listen, learn and apologize for where I've fallen short as a leader. Through these conversations, I've concluded that better communication practices are needed between me and our gymnasts. That starts with me.
"In gymnastics, we train our student-athletes to fight for every tenth. To constantly work to improve. Going forward, I along with our assistant coaches and everyone associated with Auburn gymnastics, will do exactly that. We will strive to create a culture where everyone feels valued, celebrated and protected."