In the past three years at the NAIA Volleyball National Championship tournament and other major tournaments, Columbia College volleyball players have been the targets of racist verbal abuse, been spit on and had a player grabbed during game play.
Needless to say, the Cougars are looking forward to playing in the friendly environment of Southwell Complex as the hosts of this year’s NAIA national tournament beginning today and going throughSaturday.
The grabbing incident happened two years ago at the national tournament. To accommodate the high number of games that needed to be played in the early rounds of the tournament, three courts were set up across the normal court putting the baseline close to the stands, Cougars coach Melinda Wrye-Washington said. When a Columbia College player stepped back to serve, a fan reached around her and grabbed her before she could serve. Wrye-Washington said security eventually ejected the man.
Seeing her players harassed upsets Wrye-Washington for obvious reasons, but she really does not like how grown men and women feel they can pick on college players.
“These are college women and they’re grown men, calling them names,” Wrye-Washington said. “It hurts their feelings, my girls are crying. ... There’s no need for that, there’s no need for a grown man or woman to shout anything personal; it’s a game.”
The team’s international players have been the targets of racial taunts on the road. Those taunts are offensive and hurtful because they are personal attacks that try to make players feel as if they are below their opponents, sophomore outside hitter Rael Rotich, a native Kenyan, said.
“Why are they saying things like that? We are athletes, we are competing,” Rotich said. “What is in their minds by saying that?”
Wrye-Washington always tries to defend her players. At last year’s national tournament, players told Wrye-Washington a fan in the parking lot was yelling profanity at them and telling them to go back to their country and they were not welcome in America. Wrye-Washington said she then got a security guard and went with him to confront the fan about what he was saying before things could escalate.
“I’m like a mother, I protect them like they’re my own,” Wrye-Washington said. “I told him that if he has a personal problem with foreign athletes, or our team, he should not vent towards college-age women, he can vent somewhere else, and then security took over.”
Hosting the national tournament will let players sleep in their own beds and eat in dining halls and restaurants they’re used to, but the greatest comfort will come from having the majority of fans in the arena supporting them.
“I’ve stayed in Columbia and I know people are so nice,” Rotich said. “Maybe people from other towns don’t like internationals, but I know people in Columbia like us.”
While the majority of fans will be supportive and civil, Wrye-Washington said the team is “always getting yelled at,” and she expected there to be a few problematic fans to come to Columbia College. This was seen during the Region V Tournament when visiting fans briefly chanted “USA” when freshman middle hitter Maria Omondi, a native Kenyan, was serving.
An additional benefit of playing at home is the knowledge that any problems will be dealt with quickly by security and event staff, Wrye-Washington said. At a regular season tournament three years ago, players not in the game who were standing next to the team’s bench were spit on during a game by fans standing on an elevated track that went around the court. When the players moved to avoid those fans, Wrye-Washington said referees told them to move back to their places and nothing was done to stop the unruly fans.
“We’re not going to allow that to happen to any team ... we want to be player-friendly to every team, not just the Midwestern teams,” Wrye-Washington said. “We want all these girls to have a good experience. This is the highlight of their season. We want them to remember it for good things.”