Racial injustice inside New Jersey’s Union County Women’s Rugby Club

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When a black woman is dragged forcibly off the field by a white male coach in broad daylight and there are NO penalties for such mistreatment, sadly, race is a factor- especially when the white female president and founder of the organization did the “same thing” the week prior and was celebrated for it.

Crystal Cooke in Union garb.

My name is Crystal Cooke and this is my experience of racial injustice in the sports community.

I joined Union County Women’s Rugby Club in March of 2018 and would have never imagined that in a little more than a years time, I would be physically assaulted by the coach Ivano Mirandi, gaslighted by the president and founder of Union County Women’s Rugby Club, Anna Gildea, and blacklisted by my former team to the point where I am charged with misconduct and suspended for speaking the truth.

Systematic racism breathes in every corner of our community and as a Ghanaian American, I am well aware of the oppression that comes along with it. The last place I thought I would be traumatized by unequal treatment due to race was on the safe haven of the rugby pitch. I was introduced to this sport at Elizabeth High School in New Jersey, in which I instantly fell in love.

Growing up in an inner-city community, I found solace in a sport that embraced all peoples regardless of size, race, gender, sexual orientation, or beliefs.

On May 11, 2019, in the same county I was raised and currently reside in, I participated in a non-conference match with Union County Women’s Rugby Club (UCWRC), my team at the time. After a play, a teammate Jessica ran us water and I took a sip from the bottle she gave me. I realized it wasn’t water, but warm beer and handed it back to her.

I was then suddenly verbally and physically attacked by my coach at the time, Ivano Mirandi, with excessive use of force. He grabbed a handful of my jersey collar by the neck and proceeded to pull, hop, and drag me using all of his strength- doing anything he could to yank me off of the field for more than 30 yards. Coach Ivano did this all whilst shouting degrading, derogatory, and demeaning things at me. “WHAT THE F*CK IS THIS? ARE YOU F*CKING STUPID?!”

I had no control over my body. I kept telling him to get off me, to let me go, whilst Jessica was stumbling alongside him trying to release his iron clasped grip. I will never forget the impenetrable rage he had in his eyes as he proceeded to haul me off the field like property. The assistant coach Ryan Murphy aka “Tree,” teammates, the opposing team, family, friends, and spectators were all there to witness this humiliating physical, mental, and emotional event.

Yet, when I, a black woman, ask for this same respect I am ignored, even showcased publicly as ‘CRUSTY’.

While working and going to school full time, I couldn’t even begin to fathom processing the assault. Saturday’s a rugby day, Sunday was a working day, and Monday was finals.

The Union Women’s Executive Board (W.E.B) held individual meetings with Jessica and I to discuss the assault. On May 25, I expressed how traumatizing that day was, how I had no idea what was handed to me, the degradation, and how I have never been physically attacked like that by anyone. The board members present (Sonya, Julie, and Gabriela) greatly sympathized with me, some even cried and agreed that Ivano’s inappropriate use of force was completely unwarranted and unacceptable.

I also brought up my frustrations of being nicknamed “CRUSTY” by Julie against my wishes. How my teammates and coaches would constantly refer to me by that terrible name in practice and on social media, even after countless pleas of telling them not to. I mean, how could anyone think that is an appropriate nickname? A word that literally means dirty, raggedy, ugly.

Other teammates had nicknames such as “Dad” and” Zash,” or used last names like Cortez. People were respected with how they wanted to be identified, making a conscious effort to call them by their chosen name, such as Avery versus Sara, rightfully so. Yet, when I, a black woman, ask for this same respect I am ignored, even showcased publicly as “CRUSTY.”

I brought up how I witnessed president of the team Anna Gildea, the week prior to my assault, grab a bottle that contained alcohol from the sideline and drank in preparation for a line out during a non-conference match. She was not physically assaulted, publicly denigrated, or reprimanded in any way. In fact, she was applauded with cheers and “oh shit!” Anna was so cool.

Congratulatory posts by Union County Women’s Rugby Cub honoring my athleticism, yet tarnishing my name and depreciating my image. Union County Women’s Rugby Club Instagram

Although the members at the meeting agreed that I was innocent in the situation, I received a 20-day suspension by email affirming that I would be hearing from the W.E.B. within the 20 days to have another meeting with the board and the coach.

They made certain that they would thoroughly handle the situation before the fall season to ensure a safe, comfortable environment. I received a voicemail from president Anna apologizing for what I had been through. She expressed how she drank alcohol during a game the week prior, claimed to understand my frustrations, and ensured me the situation was being taken as seriously as possible. After this, I did not hear from any member of the board regarding this issue again.

Voicemail left by president of Union County Women’s Rugby Club, Anna Gildea admitting unequal treatment.

I jumped right into playing in tournaments and transferred to Princeton Athletic Women’s Rugby Club to carpool with a teammate for the summer season, which was approved personally by Anna Gildea. After all, rugby is and has always been my outlet when life is particularly tumultuous.

Shortly after transferring, I began receiving emails to unsubscribe from the UCWRC email chain which is ran by Anna. I asked seven other teammates if they had received them as well. None of them had, including a fellow Union teammate Angie, who also transferred to Princeton Rugby for the summer season. Confused, I contacted Anna about the emails and she informed me, “It’s a glitch! They’re all bonk!” This was gaslighting and blacklisting at the start, contributing to the already hostile environment of Union County Women’s Rugby Club.

In July 2019, I attended Union’s Annual General Meeting (AGM). This year’s meeting was heavily focused on the topic of alcohol, it’s repercussions and the new rules in effect directly referring to the physical assault that took place on May 11. This was a shocking transition from 2018’s AGM, in which we discussed the year’s agenda proportionately and I was even nominated captain after only three months of play. Additionally, it was surprising considering that alcohol consumption is often intertwined with adult rugby culture; especially on a social division team such as Union County women’s team. Songs like “Shoot the Boot”, which is when you use your cleat as a cup for beer in a celebratory fashion; songs mentioning sex, drinking, respecting Jesus- those sorts of things are universal.

The majority of the time at the AGM was spent talking about alcohol and how to behave while wearing Union gear on and off the field, such as taking photos whilst drinking in the jerseys. Furthermore, the topic of this meeting was in direct contradiction to the lyrics created by UCWRC in their new team anthem “WE ARE UNION RUGBY”:

“Level up and shoot the boot
Stay at Butchies till we puke
Who’s Thirsty?!

I was later berated by coach Ivano for not participating in this same song. This was baffling- considering the severity of the new consequences for such behavior in direct response to the May 11 incident. This clear emotional and mental bullying made me feel shunned, ashamed and embarrassed. I was put in the spotlight once again as another disciplinary example, whereas president Anna had done the “same thing” knowingly, yet received no repercussions, demonstrating unequal treatment related to race.

Approaching the fall season, I expressed to vice president Gabriela, that no one from the board has followed up regarding the humiliating, physical assault since the initial emails in May. Her response was along the lines of “I’m not f*cking dealing with this right now.” She turns and walks away from me. Two days later, I am contacted by president Anna via text as opposed to all the formal lawyer jargon-filled emails I received in the past when my suspension was being handed out.

Not only is she president and founder of Union County Women’s Rugby Club, but she is also a DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL in Union county; the same county I was raised, currently reside, and was assaulted in.

What kind of character do people who hold these positions in society really have that can directly impact a person’s mental, physical, emotional, and social well-being?

Anna informed me that the reason for lack of follow up was because she’d been busy and that there was no need for a meeting before returning to play. I insisted on having a phone conversation with her because I was shocked by her dismissiveness of the severity of the situation through text compared to her concern when the assault happened. Honestly, I wanted to hear what reasoning she had as president, founder, and a professional who is obligated to uphold the law, in regards to brushing off the very serious physical attack. I wanted to know what discipline the coach faced due to his excessive use of force.

A. I will represent the Club in accordance with the core principles set forth above. I will not represent the Club in a careless way in person or on social media. This includes posting inappropriate photos wearing club apparel or with visible club insignia…

Excerpt from UCWRC-Code of Conduct 2019
Union County Women’s players toasting with beer on the rugby pitch wearing official Union jerseys post 2019 AGM. (August 5, 2019)

On the phone, I questioned her on why this matter has been disregarded in which I received more excuses, such as wedding planning to Union women’s coach Ryan Murphy (Tree) and family obligations, all that did not warrant such neglect to the situation as months went by. I asked why I am punished for unknowingly consuming alcohol that was given to me yet, she was allowed knowingly. I asked why other teammates are allowed to drink under the goal post on the field in the Union jersey’s after new rules were implemented at the very embarrassing AGM that blacklisted me, prohibiting specific actions. Yet no one else was reprimanded.

Even when a teammate in said picture expressed her guilt for partaking in the picture drinking under the goal post (knowing what I had previously gone through), she was ensured those photographed did nothing wrong. When are the rules applicable to everyone? Why do leaders of an organization single me out, use me as a tool for punishment, but only implement punishments against me? The only difference in these situations is that I am a black woman.

I tell her of the disdain from my teammates. Even being called an alcoholic right after the attack by a teammate who witnessed it with her own eyes and ironically enough- she is the same teammate that posted the goal post photo! I express that I do not feel comfortable returning with the mishandling of the situation in regards to coach Ivano receiving absolutely no penalties whatsoever and feared a hostile environment. Anna’s responses were vague, insensitive, and cold to say the least. Her best advice was that, “it is time we all moved past this“, which left me shocked and in disbelief. I knew then, at that moment, her true intentions were to gaslight me when I tried to speak up for myself.

Despite all the mixed-up emotions I was feeling, the ostracism from my teammates, and the misconduct of the physical assault, I returned to practice for the simple fact that I love rugby. Upon returning, I immediately felt the tension on the team. Some teammates wouldn’t speak to me and the coaches wouldn’t address or even look at me. In a place where I used to escape from daily life, I now felt like I was being patronized, outcasted, and made to feel ashamed in an environment that was meant to be a safe haven. Being recently awarded Most Valuable Player by Union, I now felt as though my sportsmanship was undervalued; bringing on another whirlwind of emotions to process.

I returned to play the first game of the fall season on August 31, in which the energy towards me from practice had not wavered one bit. Ironically enough, this was the first time Union was proudly singing their official anthem, “WE ARE UNION RUGBY” before the game. I respectfully chose not to participate, similar to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee peacefully. At this moment, I was confronted for the first time by coach Ivano since the May 11 assault. He aggressively questioned my desire to play to the point of tears, publicly humiliating me with more mental and emotional bullying in front of teammates and spectators.

Throughout the match, I witnessed irate behavior from coach Tree and Ivano; they were screaming and cursing at the top of their lungs at the women playing, even at the referee to the point where the ref had to issue a yellow card to coach Tree. After experiencing more mistreatment, seeing the familiar rage from both coaches, and the lack of support from my team, this outrageous behavior triggered trauma from the past assault which had me in fear of being physically attacked again. Witnessing those that stood by me shunned– like the Kaepernick effect, I knew this was not a safe environment. Along with six other teammates, I never play for Union again.

Coach Ryan Murphy (Tree) and Coach Ivano Mirandi of Union County Women’s Rugby Club on the day of the assault, May 11th, 2019.

 I transferred to Monmouth Women’s Rugby Club in September of 2019 along with a true ally, Angie, who previously spoke up for me on the mistreatment of my situation. Looking for a supportive rugby family, our new team was welcoming, encouraging, and embodied true sportsmanship. I was respected instantly by strangers whereas, I received none from my former team.

Unbeknownst to them of everything I had just been through with Union, they were helping me evolve into the confident player I once was before the assault. I was becoming more versatile than I had ever been: learning new positions, stepping out of my comfort zone, playing smarter mentally, and tougher physically. I was proud to be mentioned multiple times on USA Rugby playing with Monmouth. Growing, progressing, and bonding with my new team came to a halt when president Anna and UCWRC challenged my player eligibility to the Empire GU Division, along with Angie’s, in October 2019 after a month of play.

This would mean that all of our wins with Monmouth that season would be chalked up to forfeits, destroying our chance at playoffs. Not only were they trying to drag me down just when I was moving on, but they also came after my team, my new safe haven. Why couldn’t I have peace? Why couldn’t Monmouth have peace? Suspended pending appeal, I was forced to tell the Empire GU Division that I fled Union due to the physical, mental, threatening abuse and mistreatment. After missing one crucial game, Angie and I were cleared by USA Rugby to resume play- back in time for playoffs, going on to win the Division Championship. That moment will forever be cherished. Being champions is more than just a title for me, it means overcoming any adversity no matter what odds we are up against. I am so blessed to have Monmouth and thankful my new team stood by my side. This is what RUGBY is about. Ubuntu.

Monmouth Women’s Rugby Club November 16, 2019, after winning the Empire GU Championship.

Unfortunately, this will not be the last suspension I receive due to Anna Gildea and her connection with the Empire GU Division higher-ups.

Empire GU president Ken Pape corresponding with Monmouth president stating he will be reporting May 11 assault to SafeSport recorded on a public call to the division. October 21st, 2019
Empire GU minutes, meetings, & reports

As the fall season came to an end in November of 2019, Angie and I send multiple emails to Empire GU president Ken Pape, in an attempt to follow up with a SafeSport report. The Division was made aware back in October of 2019 of the physical assault on a public Empire GU call where Empire GU President Ken Pape states, “I will be reporting this to SafeSport because we can’t have coaches abusing players.” Mid-December, after no response from Ken Pape or anyone within the Empire division, I am informed from USA Rugby HR Manager that no SafeSport investigation was EVER created. I immediately send in a report of my own and so does Angie.

Suddenly, we are the ones hit with a misconduct investigation from Empire GU claiming false and exaggerated statements about the physical assault reported, challenging our eligibility to be exiled from the sport indefinitely. In addition to the threat of that dreadful sanction, they now were “alleging” that I was drunk during the assault, a completely false accusation! This false allegation was an attempt to put the blame on me, cover up UCWRC’s negligence to the assault, deflecting the actions of the attacker- coach Ivano Mirandi.

I was completely taken aback at this clear act of retaliation for speaking up against the physical, emotional, and mental abuse that occurred on UCWRC. Instead of those in power simply being held accountable for their actions, I am yet again invalidated and criminalized for daring to speak up. I did nothing wrong; yet those who have the ability to provide justice, who are obligated to, even bound by law due to their careers outside of rugby, are instead counteroffensive- abusing the system in efforts to continue to suppress me, the truth, and anyone who tries to uncover it. This has been the only consistent theme I have endured from those in positions of power, continuing still to this day.

Things going forward became more strenuous for me within the rugby community. Because of the ambiguity, coercion, and gaslighting from president Anna and the WEB, members of Union began to act accordingly- like lamb to the slaughter. The following email sent to Union members clearly shows how the assault and its subsequent events have been manipulated; spewing false facts to coerce others even to write statements in support of their inappropriate coaching staff.

Email sent by president of UCWRC Anna gaslighting.

The Human Resource Director from USA Rugby confirmed months after this calculated email was sent, that no report had ever ensued from the public Empire GU meeting. The fact that what happened to me is being referred to as “allegations” is GASLIGHTING. The fact that even those who witnessed the physical assault with their own eyes validated lies, rather than a black woman’s truth is HORRENDOUS. The fact that men who weren’t there to witness the event get to dictate how I was physically mistreated is IMPERTINENT. The obfuscation and abuse of power allowed my teammates to believe they could berate and contribute to the emotional and mental bullying that I would continuously receive from this organization.

Former UCWRC teammates discrediting/devaluing me.

President Ken Pape discussing misconduct investigation with judicial officer in charge Gary Heavner on Empire GU public call June 8, 2020 attacking, denigrating and disparaging me, which has since been deleted as of June 24, 2020.

Public Empire GU minutes June 8, 2020

When are members in our community such as deputy attorney generals, presidents of rugby clubs, coaches and leaders of organizations held accountable for causing injustice to another person’s life because THEY didn’t value it or view them as an equal? When will we hold the institutions accountable who claim to recognize racism, fully support black lives, a louder voice for justice, but INSTEAD discriminate, undermine, discredit and devalue them when injustice is presented to the forefront? In my homeland of Africa, there’s a saying “Ubuntu” which roughly translates to: “I am what I am because of who we all are,” literally meaning that a person is a person through other people.

It wasn’t until I took to social media, drawing confidence from the Black Lives Matter movement, that this very serious situation received any attention. Yet still, ultimately, I am punished for speaking up about my trauma. As it stands now, I am suspended for the third time in relation to the same physical assault on May 11, 2019, whereas the attacker, Ivano, is still actively coaching. I have yet to receive the results of findings from coach Ivano’s misconducts/assault. I have yet to receive any form of apology for the mishandling of the situation and the related trauma that has ensued. Unfortunately, all I have received from UCWRC is repeated attempts to cover up the situation, silence me, and retaliation against myself and ally Angie. The only positive to this situation is that I have come to understand the true meaning of a team and the feeling of belonging in Monmouth Women’s Rugby Club. I have found support in allies and teammates, as well as athletes who have since heard my story and can empathize with the situation.

It has been over a year since the coach Ivano Mirandi of Union County Women’s Rugby Club physically violated me without penalty, yet I am the one continuously being severely reprimanded in an attempt to be silenced. Ivano and those involved must be held responsible so that these heinous acts cannot happen to another young woman, another athlete, another person. How many are forced to live silently with these lifelong traumas? We must continue to bring awareness to those that carry the wounds of discrimination. SPEAK UP for them and STAND UP to injustice for those lives that have been altered or worse, ROBBED in order for us to continue to combat racism and injustice in all aspects of our community. Change starts within your institution. Rugby has instilled in me a genuine love for the sport and the true meaning of perseverance that drives me to continue to seek justice in the unjust spaces in my local environment. We need continued support from our community to bring awareness to the insensitivity towards black lives, the blatant disregard of black athletes’ everyday struggles, and the backlash that allyship is faced when fighting for justice.

Featured Image:Facebook

UPDATE: Since releasing this article, we have received an abundance of support from all over the world! A petition and a GoFundMe has been created to help with legal representation, the reinstatement of our eligibility, holding those involved accountable, and to receive justice! Please sign the petition and donate if you are able to! Thank you!

Petition: http://chng.it/MRxTtT2nqb

GoFundMe: gf.me/u/ym88it

6 thoughts on “Racial injustice inside New Jersey’s Union County Women’s Rugby Club

  1. As a former Monmouth Renegade, I am appalled by your treatment by Union but so happy that you chose to join the finest group of rugby players in NJ!

  2. That is without a doubt one of the most disturbing things I have ever read. That is just so disgusting. I’m sorry you are going through that. Monmouth is a better place, quality organization. I hope you see justice and an apology soon.

  3. I found this page through your petition on change.org and after reading your story I have to say that I am not surprised by the horrible behavior directed at you by your team and league but I am so sorry that this has happened to you and I sincerely hope that you get some justice so you can heal the trauma. You seem like a very strong person and I commend you for taking a stand. That’s no small feat. There are so many bad people in the world like your coach, teammates, etc. and it must feel like a daunting task to go up against them being outnumbered. Those who witnessed the incident yet side with the coach are just as bad as he is. Anyway, keep fighting the good fight!

  4. Thank you for speaking up and out about your trauma. I pray for justice and healing for you. Your courage and compassion will be a blessing to someone you’ll probably never meet… but God sees all!

  5. Outrageous. She needs a good civil rights attorney and some black celebrities to get involved and sue the pants off that Union organization. Disrupt the whole program, get everybody fired over there.

  6. Hi dear, I am outraged by the behaviour of the coach and all who think like him, stay strong in your convictions and always remember, remember that you are most treasured in Ghana your motherland, you are not alone in this fight against racism, do your bit to make sure to bring to light the evil these people continue to perpetrate against jewels like you but also do have an eye for Ghana where you would be treated like an angel and enjoy its abundant opportunities, there’s the need for all to know that America’s not the world, quality life is important to all, use the system to develop yourself to the max and bring the knowledge and expertise home to make life worth living, may the Lord bless and guide you dear, love you.

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