Quinn Simmons is expected to return to competition with Trek-Segafredo for the first time this spring following a team-issued suspension for making public comments on social media that the team considered "divisive, incendiary, and detrimental" last September. In a roundtable interview with select members of the cycling media on Friday, Simmons stated that he did not think that he deserved to be suspended and that he is now moving on with his focus on the Spring Classics.
"For me, I don't feel like I deserved the suspension," Simmons told the media. "I realize that I didn't represent the brand in the way that I was supposed to, but to have missed the Classics [in 2020] and, straight up, I'm able to play a big role for the team, and I think to sacrifice that was probably, definitely, not worth it, for myself and the team."
Trek-Segafredo suspended Simmons following his response to a post on Twitter by a cycling journalist ahead of the US election last year between Donald Trump and current US President Joe Biden. The journalist asked supporters of Trump to stop following her on Twitter. Simmons responded by writing "bye", followed by an emoji of a Black hand waving. When Simmons was referred to as a “Trumper” in a reply, he responded: “That’s right” with an emoji of an American flag.
The use of a Black hand emoji by a white person online has been repeatedly highlighted as racist, and the term 'digital blackface' has been coined to describe its usage.
Trek-Segafredo moved quickly to announce Simmons' suspension for "conduct unbefitting a Trek athlete," and Simmons apologised the next day, in a team statement, saying, "To those who found the color of the emoji racist, I can promise that I did not mean for it to be interpreted that way. I would like to apologize to everyone who found this offensive as I strongly stand against racism in any form."
In the roundtable interview on Friday, Simmons stated that his use of the emoji of a Black hand waving, was something that he intended as a joke. He specifically referenced the "Bye, Felicia" meme, which is sometimes used to express disregard or indifference to someone, but originated from the 1995 comedy film ‘Friday'.
"Honestly, I don't know if you've heard of the 'Bye, Felicia' joke from a movie a while back. This isn't the first time that I've seen this, and it is a pretty common joke that I've seen many times on social media before, and something that I've sent to my friends on social media as a joke. I thought it was more well-known, and seen as a joke, and being used, and because that's where I was, and that's what I thought of [at the time of the social media response].
"Honestly, it wasn't even a conversation I had in my head. It was the most recently used emoji colour, because when you type it in, it goes to the most recently used [colour], and I had used it before for the same purpose, and when I went to click on it, that's what it was, and it wasn't even really a thought."
Simmons said that he regretted responding to the social media posts that were political ahead of the US election last year. However, he said that he did not understand why using an emoji of a Black hand used by a white person online has been highlighted as a form of racism. When asked if he now, in hindsight, understands why it was upsetting to people, Simmons said, "If I'm honest, no, not really."
"This whole concept of digital blackface, or whatever they want to call it, I never even heard of that, and I don't think the majority of the population had ever heard of it. If it had been two months earlier and not in the middle of an election in the US, it would have been a non-issue," Simmons said.
"This is really something new that I don't fully understand, and a lot of people don't understand. Obviously, what I've learned is not to do it again, and to stay away from this kind of discussion. The whole 'why' behind it is still ... I could never have imagined this ... it is absolutely crazy. I'm terrified of any colour changing emojis. I only use ones that you can't change the colour now."
There has been a growing discussion about diversity and inclusivity, and making the cycling industry on a whole a more welcome place for people of colour across events, teams, organisations and brands. Asked if he personally had a problem with racial bias or inclusivity, Simmons said, "Personally, no."
"This wasn't a racial issue. The internet made it a racial issue. This was a conversation between me and a white journalist, so there was no race involved. The discussion wasn't about race, for me, and so for it to have become a racial issue, I'm confused by that. I can see people not liking Trump, but to make it an issue of race, that's wasn't part of the discussion. It was a conversation between two white people and completely irrelevant."
In Trek-Segafredo's original statement following Simmons' suspension, the team said they would keep fans and the public informed as to the decisions made in the matter. However, outside of his suspension and apology, the team did not immediately follow-up with a public statement on the resolutions that were reached with Simmons.
Trek-Segafredo's press officer Jacob Kennison confirmed to Cyclingnews on Friday that Simmons, as part of his learning process, has completed a diversity course and media training workshop. Kennison also stated that the aim of these was to help Simmons better understand differing points of views from the world around him as well as equip him with the skills and knowledge to conduct himself online in a positive and inclusive manner. "This is just a start in an ongoing process of Quinn's education," Kennison stated.
At the beginning of the interview, Cyclingnews asked Simmons if he could walk us through the details of the resolution points, additional media training, and any other actions taken within the team regarding the social media incident and what he had learned.
Simmons said that he felt that his suspension was the most significant resolution to himself and the team because he said that he missed the Spring Classics part of the revised calendar. However, he did not immediately speak to what he learned from the internal team action points, Diversity & Inclusion training, or media training.
"Obviously, you saw that the suspension was the biggest step, to miss out on a large number of races, but so far since then, the focus has been on looking forward to this year and getting a crack at the Classics and just preparing the winter as best I can. I have the support of the team, and I'm happy to be here. As far as my relationship with the team, we've completely moved on from it. We're in a really good place. I'm, personally, looking to have a stronger year this year, both on and off the bike, to do my part to support the team, again, on and off the bike."
Three times, Cyclingnews asked Simmons if he could speak directly to the action points taken following the social media incident, Simmons stated that the entire team underwent media training at their team camp over the winter, however, he then directed the question to his press officer.
"We had a whole media training for the entire team at camp this year, and everyone knew that it was thanks to me, but at the end of the day, the focus is to get back to racing my bike because that is what I'm here to do. I'm not here to post on [social media]. I'm here to race. That's been the focus ever since," Simmons said.
Simmons will begin racing with Trek-Segafredo this month and focus on Strade Bianche, Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and Amstel Gold Race. He said he will no longer use social media to publicise his political views and stay out of political discussions online.
"At the end of the day, the feedback that I've gotten on both sides of what happened is that people don't want to hear politics and sports," Simmons said. "They come to our pages and watch our team because they love the bike, to ride the bike, and to watch it.
"My job is to represent the team both on and off the bike in a way that promotes cycling. I'm not a political commentator, and a general rule for all athletes, that's a space we should stay out of. If you look at the comments on any political article or argument around sports, generally, the fans are here to watch. It's supposed to be a distraction from the real world. When shit like this gets dragged in, it's supposed to be about bike racing, I don't think anyone ends up happy, and no one wins."
Following Simmons' roundtable interview with the cycling press, a spokesperson from Trek-Segafredo confirmed additional details of the Diversity & Inclusion training that all of the team's athletes and all Trek employees have completed;
Trek’s HR department drove the initial online, in-language, training effort that covered a broad understanding of the importance of diversity and inclusion. Completion tracking was done to ensure that we could establish a common understanding. We completed a second wave this off-season where we enrolled all of the athletes and staff on all the Trek owned teams, which everyone completed before the first gathering in Spain.
We also completed in-person small-group training at our team camp. While the online module was very useful, we wanted to dig deeper and cover topics that might be more specific to an athlete’s experience.
These represent the beginning of an effort that we plan to continue to revisit and build upon so that it becomes something sustainable and ingrained in the team’s culture.
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.