Jasmine Orsted said the comments began almost immediately after she started practicing with other hopefuls seeking spots on the University of Mary Washington’s women’s basketball team.
One white player openly mused about “why black people name their kids the way they do,” Orsted recalled. Another white woman responded that she “never had to worry about that,” because her high school “wasn’t in the ghetto,” adding that she was glad there were only one or two black players on her high school team.
“I was astounded,” Orsted said of her 2014 experience at the Fredericksburg, Va., school. “I couldn’t believe that somebody would actually say that, especially in the presence of somebody that’s black.”
Orsted was ultimately barred from trying out for the team because of what the coach deemed a lack of “chemistry” with other players, according to her lawsuit. Believing that “chemistry” meant tolerating racism, Orsted sued the university in federal court in Virginia and settled last month for $160,000.
As part of the agreement, Mary Washington did not acknowledge wrongdoing. But it did commit to bringing in an outside professional to lead annual sensitivity and inclusion training for staff and students in the Athletic Department. And any student who participates in preseason activities for a sport will now be guaranteed a tryout.
The lawsuit comes at a time when many college campuses have been working to confront instances of racism. Orsted, who now attends Bowie State University on a basketball scholarship, said she hopes her decision to take a stand, instead of ignoring the comments, helps others. Without the support of her family and a youth coach, she said, she probably would “have been one of the ones to cry and just be sad.”
“I just want anybody else who goes though this to know that they have to believe in themselves and not let anybody make them think that they’re being too sensitive, that they’re the issue,” she said. “Not let the bullies win.”
As a condition of the settlement, Orsted will not disparage the school; however, she is allowed to recount the contentions in the lawsuit.
Orsted had come to Mary Washington in 2014 to play basketball, a sport she had loved since childhood. Because she had outperformed some of the university’s players during a year at Northern Virginia Community College, she was hopeful she’d spend a lot of time on the court. She could also save money by living at home in nearby Woodbridge, and her parents would be able to attend her games.
But as the preseason went on, the racial comments continued, Orsted said. One player expressed fear of going to a black church. Another said that black girls don’t shave because their legs are dark. When a girl said she had gone to Haiti, Orsted said another white player asked, “So, did you get a picture with a skinny little hungry black boy?”
When she was asked about her heritage, Orsted told the other women that she had an African American mother and a Norwegian father. She said they were incredulous.
“ ‘So you have a white dad who married a black woman and they had a baby together?’ ” she recalled one player asking. “And they just all fell on the ground laughing. And I’m standing there like — this is 2014 at the time, that’s not something unheard of, I don’t understand how it could be funny.”
There were two black players already on the team. Orsted said one made her own jokes about race — for example, saying that she was the rare black person who could swim. The other black player, according to Orsted, would laugh along with the white players at racial comments.
The only people who didn’t laugh, she said, were Orsted and another black newcomer. That student testified in a deposition that when she confronted other players about a racial joke, they responded with “weird looks” and began distancing themselves from her. The student, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution, was also cut from the team before tryouts and has since left the school.
Orsted still wanted to try out. She thought that once the coach was present, the comments would stop, and that the other girls would begin to respect her as a teammate.
But about two weeks before tryouts, coach Deena Applebury called her in for a meeting and suggested she try a different sport.
“I don’t know if this is going to work, all right?” Applebury said, according to a transcript included in court papers, adding that she had heard Orsted was not “really bonding with the kids.”
Orsted brought up the racial comments, and Applebury promised to look into them. But, she added, “when you have, you know, a group versus one person, I kind of have to go to the group because it’s a team sport, for right, wrong, or otherwise.”
There’s a transcript because, at her mother’s prodding, Orsted secretly recorded the conversation. Sheila Holt-Orsted had also told her to keep a diary documenting jokes that made her uncomfortable.
Holt-Orsted had some experience in this area. A decade earlier she led a lawsuit — also settled — against Dickson, Tenn., for letting a known carcinogen contaminate drinking water in the county’s black neighborhood. Several members of her family died of cancer; she survived breast cancer.
“I really just thought that this could not be happening again,” Holt-Orsted said. “We’re in a situation where we just can’t back down and let people treat us indifferently.”
More confrontational than her soft-spoken daughter, she went to school officials with her husband but said she found little support. Orsted recalled that one human-resources administrator suggested that it was a “compliment” to say that black women don’t have to shave their legs.
The family sued, with the help of Alexandria civil rights attorney Victor Glasberg.
Vernon Brooks, who had coached Orsted in a youth league, described her as an “exceptional athlete.” During her time at Mary Washington, Orsted called him to vent, sometimes crying over what teammates had said. “At first, initially I thought, they’re competing. that happens a lot in college. . . . But then as we continued to talk, I could feel the emotion coming out and that it might be something more.”
After the suit began, Orsted looked through old yearbooks at the library. She noticed that in the past 14 years, there had been only three African Americans on the women’s basketball team.
Rod Wood, who had coached the men’s basketball team for 18 years at the time Orsted was attending Mary Washington, testified in a deposition that he had warned Athletic Director Ken Tyler about racial issues at the school in 2013.
Wood recalled telling Tyler “that these are things that are happening, and that there had been other things in the past. . . . There’s always an underlying race issue.”
Wood testified that Tyler told him if he pressed the issue, he would be removed as coach. That happened two weeks later.
A university spokeswoman said employees of the Athletic Department would not comment and that the university’s only statement on the lawsuit is a letter from Juliette Landphair, vice president for student affairs. Landphair said that the school settled “to mitigate the significant costs related to litigation . . . without admission of liability or wrongdoing.”
Orsted remains on the basketball team at Bowie, although she recently had to take a year off for a leg injury. In the summer of 2015, after leaving Mary Washington, she played against several members of the school’s team in a summer-league game. Her team was leading by 20 points as the game wound down. With a minute left on the clock, she said, the players from her old school left the court without shaking her hand.