Up Next

As Told To

Volleyball star Deja McClendon takes a stand against racism in her sport

The former Penn State standout hopes her story will help others take action

When Deja McClendon first suited up with the Penn State volleyball team in 2010 as a freshman, she was joining a dynasty. The school had won three straight NCAA titles, and McClendon was the top recruit who could position the Nittany Lions for a fourth.

Not only did McClendon help secure that fourth championship, she emerged as a star, as the 6-foot-1 National Freshman of the Year won the NCAA Championship Most Outstanding Player award.

Penn State’s Deja McClendon (18) hits the ball for a kill during the first round of the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Championship Tournament played at Rec Hall on the campus of Penn State in University Park, PA.

Bill Streicher/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

McClendon would cap her collegiate career with another national championship in 2013 before embarking on a professional career that’s taken her from Poland to Italy to Brazil.

Playing in foreign places, McClendon became accustomed to experiencing extended stares and glances. She chalked it up to people being unfamiliar with seeing a tall Black woman. Especially since 2018 when McClendon, after a lifetime struggle with alopecia, decided to shave her head.

Those factors led McClendon to one of the most uncomfortable experiences of her career in 2019, when a viewer watching an online broadcast of her game as a member of the Minas Tênis Clube team in Brazil posted this comment in the game’s chat box: “Minas, sub the bald monkey off.”

McClendon felt alone, subjected to racism in a foreign country. But as the incident set off a firestorm, she became determined to pursue legal attempts to hold the person who wrote the comment accountable.

Today, McClendon, 28, is back in the United States playing with Athletes Unlimited, a new professional league that will launch on Saturday. She shares her story of combating racism within her sport with The Undefeated.

There’s an incident that occurred early in my professional volleyball career while I was in Poland that really stands out. I was one of two Black players on the team and the coach, whenever he had a request, would refer to us as ‘the chocolates.’

I don’t think he meant for those words to be derogatory, and I wouldn’t describe it as being shocking because it happens to Black athletes all the time. But since there were no other Black women on the team, he felt like it was an OK thing to say.

It’s not.

But, as a young player just starting my career, I didn’t say anything. At the time it was hard to know how much of a fight to put up about things that bothered me, and I was leery of the repercussions that would occur if I said something. I didn’t have anyone to show me how to navigate such a sensitive issue like this.

That was then, and this is now.

I’m eight years into my professional career, and I think I’ve learned a lot now. After enduring several instances like this – being subjected to offensive comments and microaggressions — it’s easier to understand that this is not OK and to stand up for yourself. No one should have to worry about the challenges of playing professionally and dealing with racism at the same time.

Unfortunately, racism is something I’ve had to deal with constantly while playing volleyball. From the time I started playing at a young age, I found there weren’t many people who looked like me. There were no girls of color on my middle school team, and even when I transitioned into club ball, which was more competitive and included a broader range of girls, there still weren’t very many girls of color.

Of course, I stuck out — I’m Black, I’m tall — but that’s just how it is. With my love for the sport and my desire to be competitive, I just rolled with the punches.

By the time I was playing professionally in Brazil and faced racism via a social media comment, I was no longer willing to roll with the punches.

We were in the middle of playing a game when the racist comment was posted, so I didn’t immediately realize what happened. But I did notice, once we got on the bus, a different vibe from my teammates. It was quieter than usual. They wouldn’t look at me. Nobody said anything. And my phone started to blow up, with people sending me screenshots of some comments that I didn’t immediately understand because they were in Portuguese.

The next day when I translated the words, my initial thoughts were, ‘Really, this is happening again?’

It’s not the first time I’ve been attacked on social media. When you’re an athlete, people make these negative, racist comments about you all the time. It still hurts.

Mostly, I choose to ignore what’s said or written. At the end of the day, they’re just words. But what happened in Brazil was different. Because of it being on social media, it blew up a lot more within the volleyball world. And I realized that this wasn’t just an attack on me, but all athletes of color.

It happens all the time. Bananas get thrown at soccer players. Racial slurs directed at basketball players from the stands, on through social media. Hockey players are subjected to racial taunts both on the ice, and during a team’s virtual Q&A. The truth is racism in sports is individual, organizational and structural and it touches every single Black, Indigenous and person of color (BIPOC) across every sport. So, what are we doing to break this cycle?

I decided to take a stance. In Brazil, I was informed that you can bring criminal charges against a person who attacks you. When I decided to go in that direction, the team was incredibly supportive. Management provided legal representation to pursue a case, which was an offer I never expected.

I called my mother to tell her what I intended to do, and not only did she encourage me, she also helped me draft the comment that I posted on Instagram.

I wasn’t the first woman in that organization to be racially targeted. Some of the previous women, some Olympians, were victims of abuse. But in Brazil, you’re allowed to pursue charges against people who spew hate on social media. Those previous women subjected to racist comments pursued charges. I decided to do the same.

When I signed a contract to play in Brazil, I never imagined I’d be in a police station for any reason. But there I was, alongside my agent. The police explained the entire process. They told me, ‘This is a crime in Brazil, and we’re going to treat this seriously.’ The lead officer appeared to be really compassionate and, in dealing with him, always made me feel that finding the person who did this was a priority.

Unfortunately, the police weren’t able to locate the person because of the use of a fake account. While no one was ever charged, I’m happy that we at least took a stand. Hopefully, taking that stand will empower other victims to do the same thing.

I initially felt alone and isolated when the incident first came to light. What kept me composed was knowing how much my teammates and my team had my back and created this shield to protect me. My teammates and the fans in Brazil surrounded me with love and put out messages on their social media accounts that they stood with me, and that there was no room for that type of hate in our sport.

When situations like this come up you have to find a way to mentally buck up and come back to the court and smile and perform. That’s all part of being a professional.

But it’s a tough fight when you’re forced to face racism alone. It’s important for nonpeople of color to realize their importance in raising awareness, and understand how crucial it is for them to be allies.

These incidents continue to happen, so we have work to do. I’m hoping by sharing my story — along with the stories shared by others — will allow people in similar circumstances to feel confident to stand tall and stand up to racist acts.

Confronting racist issues and microaggressions that surround us, while at the same time trying to focus on playing the games we love, is a difficult dynamic.

But it’s a dynamic that has to be more aggressively addressed so that, hopefully, the generations that follow us won’t be subjected to incidents to the extent that I’ve had to endure.