Noose comment by Penn State basketball coach points to larger NCAA problem

Too many college coaches need a basic education on racial issues

Editor’s note: Pat Chambers resigned Oct. 21 following an investigation into inappropriate conduct that stemmed from allegations made in this story.

It began as a normal conversation. Rasir Bolton, the freshman starting point guard for Penn State’s basketball team, was working out with the shooting machine on an off day. The gym was mostly empty. Head coach Pat Chambers called Bolton over to talk.

It was January 2019, and the team was in a troubled state. Four days earlier, during a loss at Michigan, Chambers became enraged during a timeout and shoved one of his players in the chest. The moment was caught on national television. Chambers apologized and was suspended for the next game, a 19-point home loss to Wisconsin. Bolton shot poorly against Wisconsin and finished with seven points, five assists and two turnovers.

The day after the Wisconsin game, Chambers told Bolton he knew the freshman was under a lot of pressure and wanted to help him. Bolton recalls Chambers, who was on the hot seat due to the suspension and a 7-8 record at that point in the season, saying, “I want to be a stress reliever for you. You can talk to me about anything. I need to get some of this pressure off you.

“I want to loosen the noose that’s around your neck.”

This happened what feels like a lifetime ago — before the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery ignited protests that shook America. Before the protests emboldened athletes at Clemson, Iowa, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas State to reveal troubling racial interactions with their coaches, and encouraged Texas football players to demand a more inclusive campus culture. Before NASCAR banned the Confederate flag and was immediately rocked by a noose impersonating a door pulldown in the garage of its only Black driver. Before four Black people were found hanging from trees across the country, supposedly all suicides, in less than a month.

Today, what Chambers said hits different.

Iowa State’s Rasir Bolton (left) drives around Texas’ Courtney Ramey (right) at the Frank Erwin Center on Feb. 1 in Austin, Texas. After telling the NCAA about the noose comment, Bolton received a waiver to play immediately for the Cyclones and averaged 14.7 points per game in 2019-20.

Chris Covatta/Getty Images

The Bolton family believed his comment was ignorant at best and a form of institutional racism at worst. I wouldn’t call it racist, but an indefensible, tone-deaf choice of words for a white man who makes $900,000 per year coaching mostly Black athletes to say to a Black player. It also points to a lack of cultural competency among too many NCAA coaches, as well as the racial imbalance in college sports, where more than half of Division I basketball and football players are Black, but 85% of their coaches are white.

“I didn’t realize that word would hurt him, and I am truly, truly sorry for that,” Chambers, 49, told me last week.

Bolton’s parents, Ray and Chalonda, first contacted the athletic director with concerns about Chambers’ shove. As soon as Bolton told them about the noose comment, they sent another email, which led to a meeting with Chambers. The coach said he apologized; Ray and Chalonda are adamant that he did not. Penn State administrators told Chambers his language was “intolerable,” according to associate director of communications Rose Carter, and “impressed upon him the seriousness of this matter.”

Chambers was not required to undergo any diversity or cultural competency training. Bolton was referred to Penn State’s sports psychologist, a white man, who among other things, advised Bolton to learn how to deal with Chambers’ personality type.

“Rasir was taught how to deal with Coach Chambers,” Chalonda Bolton said. “What was Coach Chambers taught?”

To make matters worse, Bolton said Chambers later told him he was impressed with how “organized” and “well-spoken” his parents were — an unintentional but well-known insult among Black folks, which rests on the assumption that Black people are disorganized or inarticulate. Chambers said he does not recall making that comment.

“Rasir [Bolton] was taught how to deal with Coach [Pat ] Chambers. What was Coach Chambers taught?” — Rasir Bolton’s mom, Chalonda Bolton

In the game after the noose comment, at Nebraska, Bolton shot 1-for-9, finishing with four points and one assist in a 70-64 loss. The next game, against Michigan State, he was removed from the starting lineup, played only six minutes and did not score. Bolton did not start another game that season, although his minutes returned to their previous level and he finished as the team’s second-leading scorer, with 11.6 points per game.

The Boltons’ relationship with Chambers never recovered. After the season, Bolton transferred to Iowa State. After telling the NCAA about the noose comment, he received a waiver to play immediately and averaged 14.7 points per game in 2019-20. Penn State’s athletic integrity office only investigated Bolton’s situation after he began the transfer process.

Bolton has not spoken publicly about what happened until now, when African Americans from all walks of life finally have the opportunity to speak their truths. He decided to go public because he knows other Black athletes are dealing with similar situations. Nearly every aspect of an athlete’s college experience is controlled by their coach. Bolton’s elite talent landed him in a good spot, but he knows some other players can’t speak up because it could cost them their playing time, their scholarships or their dreams.

“I just feel like it can help other kids who might be in that situation,” Bolton told me. “If they’re going through something like I did, I’ll come out and try to make an impact.”

Bolton grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, with a sister, a brother, and parents Ray, a mental health professional and former college player at Bethune-Cookman, and Chalonda, who works for a credit union in compliance and collections. Bolton chose Penn State over schools such as Clemson, Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Joseph’s. In the second game of his college career, Bolton put up 25 points off the bench against Jacksonville State. Eight games into the 2018-19 season, Bolton moved into the starting lineup and scored 17 in a close loss to Indiana.

Then, on Jan. 3, 2019, Penn State traveled to Michigan, which was the game where Chambers shoved guard Myles Dread, Bolton’s roommate and childhood friend.

Penn State guard Rasir Bolton (right) drives to the lane against Wisconsin on March 2, 2019, at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin.

Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Chambers is known as a fiery coach. He grew up the youngest of 12 children in the suburb of Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, right outside of Philadelphia, and played point guard at Division II Philadelphia University. After working his way up to associate head coach at Villanova, he got his first head coaching job at Boston University, then got the Penn State job in 2011. Chambers’ record over nine seasons in State College is 148-150, and 56-110 in the Big Ten. In 2019-20, he was poised to make his first NCAA tournament at Penn State before the season was canceled due to the coronavirus.

Bolton said the shove and its aftermath put the team in a funk, which deepened after the Nittany Lions got smacked by Wisconsin. The team spiraled into an eight-game losing streak, and 10 losses over 12 games.

When Chambers made the noose comment, Bolton was shocked but said nothing. Later that day, Bolton related what happened to his academic adviser, a Black woman. “Am I overreacting?” he asked. The adviser said no, and advised him to call Chambers. The two spoke that night. Bolton recounted that Chambers, who is Catholic, said he was making a biblical reference and had intended to say “yoke.”

I asked Chambers about that phone call. He expressed remorse for choosing the word “noose.”

“I just said [to Rasir], ‘You know what? I wish I would have known.’ ”

If Floyd had not been killed on video, I doubt Chambers and Penn State would have given me an interview. I probably would have received a vague statement about Penn State respecting diversity and treating players like family.

But now, the Black Lives Matter movement has made many white people realize their countless small cuts are bleeding Black America to death. Silence is no longer an option.

Chambers began our 30-minute Zoom call by saying, “I think it’s important for you to know I love my players, man. I love my players and I care about my players. I’m a faithful man. I listen to the Scripture, I live in the Scripture on a daily basis.” He said he didn’t know a noose reference would hurt Bolton.

I asked, “How could you not know?”

“I don’t even know where it came from,” Chambers said. “It’s not a word that’s in my vocabulary. It’s not something I use often. There’s not a moment that goes by that I don’t want to reflect on that choice and, you know, I’m growing from it.”

Later in the conversation, I informed him, probably for the first time, that he insulted the Bolton family by saying Ray and Chalonda were “organized” and “well-spoken.”

“I don’t recall that,” Chambers said. “I’ve been in this world almost my entire life. I’ve been playing basketball since I was in second, third grade. I’ve grown up in this world.”

He stopped talking. There was silence.

I give Chambers credit for talking about his mistakes. There are a lot of layers to what happened. I don’t think he should lose his job, but he has to learn that it’s not enough to give Black kids scholarships or hire a Black assistant coach.

Yet here we were, I said, talking about a noose and insults to Black parents. “How could you, of all people, be in this position?”

I was trying to get Chambers to explain how he could grow up in “this world” and still make this mistake. To reflect on how he could be entrusted with so many young Black lives, but had never taken the time to learn what nooses mean to Black America. I wanted him to think about how he could say he loves us — which I believe he truly means — and still disrespect us.

It didn’t work. “Again, the word I chose is unfortunate,” Chambers said. “And I don’t recall — a lot of parents are educated. It’s 2020, everybody’s parents are educated. Everybody’s pretty well-educated.”

I mentioned that a half-dozen other prominent coaches were in trouble for racial comments and asked, “What do you think it says about Division I athletics right now, that this is still happening?”

“We can’t be silent anymore,” Chambers said. “I think we’ve got to ask questions. And so I wanted to come on here and talk to you. I think we need to be educated.”

Ironically, on June 5 of this year, Chambers assumed the role of educator.

As protests peaked, the National Association of Basketball Coaches invited Chambers to serve as a panelist for a webinar on how coaches can address racial injustice. Bolton saw a report of it come across his phone and felt disrespected all over again. That’s when the family reached out to me to discuss the reasons Bolton decided to leave Penn State.

When I told Chambers I thought he should be learning from the panel, not leading it, he said: “I was invited on. Again, I apologize to Rasir and his family if I caused them pain. It was a really poor choice of words. But I do think I was the right guy to be on that panel, as a white male who has done this for a long time and been in this world for a long time.”

What is this world that Chambers is talking about? And why is it so different from the Boltons’?

Chambers meant the world of basketball, where bonding and camaraderie are supposed to unite Black and white in a colorblind brotherhood. A world where he cited his life in the northern cities of Philadelphia and Boston as reasons to be uneducated about nooses, despite those cities’ torturous racist histories. A world where he cites genuine relationships with Black Penn State players such as Lamar Stevens, Shep Garner and Mike Watkins as examples of his racial understanding.

“If I was out of touch with the African American community,” Chambers said, “I’m not sure they would have been as successful as they were … we might not be saving lives, but I think we’re changing lives. And I think we’re making a major impact in our program, in inner-city communities.”

I give Chambers credit for talking about his mistakes. There are a lot of layers to what happened. I don’t think he should lose his job, but he has to learn that it’s not enough to give Black kids scholarships or hire a Black assistant coach. Chambers needs to understand that the world of top-level college sports is set up for things like that noose comment to happen. It’s set up to make Black athletes conform to the worldview of white coaches, who are hired by white universities that don’t require meaningful racial understanding. This world may not feel unfair or discriminatory to Chambers — but fish don’t feel wet, either.

Too many white coaches have failed to educate themselves on the basics. It took yet another police killing, and international protests and riots, for them to want to go back to school.

Let’s hope that Rasir Bolton’s story helps Pat Chambers understand what it means to live in a world where white men call the plays, and Black men obey. A world where white coaches love their Black players, but don’t always understand who they are.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.