Iman Mekonen, Executive Editor
Sarah Elson, Managing Editor
Former VCU women’s basketball player Jenna Nelson is alleging unfair treatment and long-standing opposition from the women’s basketball program, brought on by “retaliation over ongoing issues in the treatment of walk-on players.”
Jada Nelson, the athlete’s sister, posted a five-paragraph statement on Instagram announcing her sister’s release from the women’s basketball team on Sept. 9.
“Since the beginning of Jenna’s basketball journey at VCU, she has faced a lot of opposition,” Jada Nelson stated in the photo’s caption. “She has constantly been given less opportunities and treated differently since she walked onto this D1 [Division I] team.”
Since then, the post has circulated on social media and has received almost 4,800 likes along with over 195 comments, as of Sept. 21.
Jenna Nelson joined the Rams in 2019 as a walk-on freshman and played in eight games over the course of two seasons, with a total of nine minutes played, according to her VCU Athletics profile.
The athlete alleges situations where she was “embarrassed, humiliated or felt belittled due to her walk on status.” The post also states that before the tryout, the athlete reached out to “administration and other people in charge in order to be treated fairly” as a walk-on athlete.
“It’s so hard to speak out about something that goes on without the knowledge of other people,” Jenna Nelson said in an interview. “I honestly did not expect that post to blow up the way it did.”
The NCAA defines a walk-on athlete as someone who is not typically recruited by a school to participate in a sport, nor receives financial aid, but becomes a member of an athletic team. Preferred walk-ons can earn a scholarship during their second season, but according to NCSAsports.org, “nothing is guaranteed.”
The post claims that Jenna Nelson was told that she would have to participate in tryouts for the team due to “high interest in the team” a week prior to the trials. After the walk-on trials, she was later released from the team.
According to Jenna Nelson, she was not required to try out as a walk-on after her first season ended, and it came as a surprise to the athlete, who is now a junior.
The post claims that during the tryouts, players had to scrimmage against male basketball players, which was “unexpected” to the athlete.
“I had a full team practice two hours before the walk-on trials,” Jenna Nelson said. “So I had got to the walk-on trials and I thought it was very strange. I saw all the men and, you know, I was just like, ‘what’s going on?’”
The post also claims that only three other players showed up to the tryout, despite the program telling her there was a high interest.
“I felt humiliated,” Jenna Nelson said about scrimmaging against male players. “When he [a male during the scrimmage] easily backed me up with his height, it just felt humiliating.”
Neither VCU Athletics nor the VCU women’s basketball team as a whole have addressed the allegations publicly. VCU Athletics issued a statement to The Commonwealth Times regarding the allegations.
“VCU Women’s Basketball held open walk-on tryouts on Sept. 1 for VCU students that met all NCAA eligibility guidelines.
The coaching staffs for all VCU intercollegiate athletic programs have sole discretion each season as to whether to add a walk-on to the roster. At all walk-on tryouts, the staff evaluates each individual based on need, skill level, academics and programmatic fit.
Walk-ons do not receive any athletic grants-in-aid but receive VCU Athletics equipment, clothing, meals, lockers, training opportunities and the same access to athletic training and support staff as all recruited scholarship student-athletes.
VCU Women’s Basketball, alongside numerous other Division I programs, historically has used male practice players when available. These male practice players do not have eligibility to participate in any collegiate competition for the women’s basketball team nor do they fill any roster spot.
VCU Athletics aims to compete for Atlantic 10 and national championships while providing a world-class experience to all its student-athletes regardless of scholarship status.”
The individual women’s basketball players issued a statement regarding the allegations from Jenna Nelson publicly on their Instagram stories. According to Evan Nicely, the director of athletics communications, this statement was not an official statement from the athletic department or the women’s basketball coaching staff.
“In light of recent events, we as a team feel the need to address the slander against VCU women’s basketball. It came as a shock to see the accusations made against our program. We take pride in our core values which we strive to embody everyday … We are a championship caliber team and feel the need to surround ourselves with competitors that will challenge us to be better,” according to the statement.
Jenna Nelson’s mother, Lakisha Nelson, said in an interview that she and her daughters are still working to be heard by VCU.
“Our goal is still we want to speak to the president [of VCU,] we would like to speak to someone over the athletic department so that at least we can be heard,” Lakisha Nelson said. “We had reached out to ask for help and it felt like we’re now being penalized — because we did reach out.”
In response to the statement, the athlete said despite being offered the same “materialistic” items, referring to equipment, meals and clothing, she was still not treated fairly.
“What I’m emphasizing is, I’ve been told many, many times, it was because I was a non-scholarship player that I would not advance,” Jenna Nelson said. “I just wanted to be given, you know, the same respect, fairness and opportunities as well.”
Kaitlyn Fulmore contributed to this report.