Pat Chambers, head coach of the men’s basketball team at Penn State, apologized Monday for comments he made in 2019 that led to the departure of then-freshman Rasir Bolton.
In a statement posted on Twitter this week, Bolton said he chose to leave Penn State following an exchange he had with the coach after a game between Penn State and Wisconsin in January 2019.
“A ‘noose’ around my neck is why I left Penn State,” Bolton wrote in the tweet. “Head Coach Patrick Chambers, the day after his one-game suspension in January 2019, in talking to me referenced a ‘noose’ around my neck.” Chambers had been suspended for the January 6, 2019, game after shoving a freshman player during a timeout several days earlier.
Chambers had told Bolton he knew the player was under pressure. The team had lost and Bolton shot poorly. He said he wanted to be a stress-reliever for Bolton, according to an article by ESPN’s The Undefeated.
“You can talk to me about anything. I need to get some of this pressure off you,” Chambers said at the time, The Undefeated reported. Then, the coach said, “I want to loosen the noose that’s around your neck.”
Bolton said he reported the incident immediately, but he was never given an apology and was only offered “surface level resources” as he finished the season.
In his apology Monday, Chambers said he “realized the pain my words and ignorance caused Rasir Bolton and his family.”
“I failed to comprehend the experiences of others, and the reference I made was hurtful, insensitive and unacceptable,” he wrote in the statement, which he posted on Twitter. “I cannot apologize enough for what I said, and I will carry that forever.”
Why Bolton chose to share his experience
After the 2018-19 season, Bolton left Penn State for Iowa State, with little explanation at the time. In his lengthy statement, Bolton clarified why he left – and noted he wanted to “tell this story, because it is not alleged, it was admitted to and documented.”
Bolton told The Undefeated that his decision to publicly share his experience at Penn State came after seeing Chambers was among several coaches participating in a National Association of Basketball Coaches virtual panel in June addressing racial injustice. Seeing that, he said, made him feel disrespected.
“A noose; symbolic of lynching, defined as one of the most powerful symbols directed at African Americans invoking the history of lynching, slavery and racial terrorism,” he wrote. “Due to other interactions with Coach, I knew this was no slip of the tongue.”
After the noose comment was made, Bolton said he immediately notified his academic adviser, the athletic director’s office and Chambers himself. He said his parents also drove five hours to campus to meet with Chambers and people in the athletic director’s office “more than once.”
“During this time, Coach Chambers admitted to what he said,” according to Bolton.
As a result of discussing the noose comment, Bolton said he experienced “subtle repercussions,” including his teammates being told he “couldn’t be trusted.”
He also “was provided one meeting and a phone number to text with a psychologist. I was taught ‘ways to deal with Coach Chambers’ personality type.’”
In May 2019, it was announced that Bolton was headed to Iowa.
During his final player/coach meeting in April of last year, Bolton said Chambers issued yet another “subtle insult” – this time directed toward his family.
“Coach Chambers told me he was ‘really impressed with how well spoken and organized my parents were,’” a comment that plays directly into stereotypes presuming low expectations for Black people.
Chambers told The Undefeated that he doesn’t recall making the comment insulting Bolton’s parents.
Until Monday, Chambers had never apologized, Bolton said. Penn State’s Integrity Office reached out six months later, after Bolton had already left the school, to request a waiver.
Penn State official responds
When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Penn State referred CNN to Chambers’ statement, as well as a statement posted by the school’s Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour.
Barbour, whose statement was published on Twitter on Monday, detailed an action plan the athletics program intends to take to help the school “move to a more inclusive, just and respectful environment.”
“It’s imperative that we all learn from the mistakes of our past – our own and those of others,” Barbour wrote.
The steps outlined in the plan include: listening by conducting an annual Intercollegiate Athletics climate survey; taking action by establishing an Intercollegiate Athletics Response Team “to more effectively address issues of concerns, affecting the culture, climate and experience of the … community”; and a handful of other efforts, which Barbour described as “just a start.”
Chambers – who has been Penn State’s head coach since 2011 – “has stated that he is committed to educating himself and he is actively working to learn and grow, which will be imperative to his future success at Penn State,” Barbour said.
‘I wasn’t the first and I know I wasn’t the last’
Bolton’s statement, and Chambers’ subsequent apology, come as protests in the US continue over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others. Their deaths reignited a movement for change.
In college sports specifically, Bolton is not the first to speak up against incidents of racism.
Last month, Kerry Martin, Jr, a football player at West Virginia University, detailed the mistreatment he and others received from defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who has now been placed on administrative leave while the school conducts an investigation. Koenning also apologized in a statement to Martin, writing that he never intended to be offensive or insensitive.
“I wasn’t the first and I know I wasn’t the last,” Bolton, who is now 20, said of his experience with Chambers, adding that he believes changes need to be made “in the way players are protected and helped across the country when faced with these situations.”
“Surface level resources are not good enough,” he wrote. “In most cases it is the Coach who is protected, while the player is left to deal with it or leave.”
He ended his statement urging others to “BE the change you want to see.”