CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Former University of Illinois women’s basketball players’ allegations of racially motivated mistreatment were unfounded, investigators hired by the school concluded in a report released Monday that also found that one former assistant coach “treated players harshly.”
Seven former players sued the university, coach Matt Bollant, athletic director Mike Thomas and others on July 1, alleging Bollant and some other coaches used race to divide the team and drive players out. The players are seeking at least $10 million in damages.
The report from Pugh, Jones & Johnson law firm in Chicago concluded complaints from players and parents started after a string of seven losses late in the 2014-15 season and included no real evidence of a racial divide. However, the report acknowledged former assistant coach Mike Divilbiss’ treatment of players was judged as harsh by some and recommended changes such as a code of conduct for coaches.
“Some athletes and their parents obviously disagreed with the coaches’ judgments about which players most effectively executed their new style of play, but there is no evidence that the coaches did not honestly believe they put the best team on the floor, without consideration of players’ race,” the report concluded.
The players’ attorney, Terry Ekl, said in an e-mail that he wasn’t surprised university-paid investigators would issue a report favorable to the school.
“This is precisely why we did not wait until the conclusion of the university-funded investigation to be completed before we file suit,” Ekl said.
Chancellor Phyllis Wise, the top administrator on the Urbana-Champaign campus, said in an interview that she’s “relieved” the law firm “found no evidence of racially based abuse” but that she takes the recommendations for changes “really seriously.”
Thomas said a code of conduct had already been in the works and he plans to release it in the coming days. He said he’s taking other recommended steps such as making it easier for players to voice concerns. But he noted that even players interviewed for the report interpreted coaches’ behavior differently.
“When you look at `harsh language,’ I guess people could define that in different ways.”
The players’ lawsuit accuses Bollant and Divilbiss, who are white, of treating some black players poorly to push them off the team, and doing the same to white players who supported those black players. It also accuses them of holding segregated practices known as “the dog pound” for less-favored players, barring white and black players from rooming together and using derogatory terms for black players since Bollant was hired in 2012.
Some current players and their parents have disputed the allegations.
Divilbiss left the university in May and has not commented. Bollant has not commented either.
The law firm said it interviewed 33 coaches, players, administrators and team supporters, watched video of games and practices, and reviewed more than 18,000 documents. The documents included written statements from the players who sued. They declined to be interviewed for the report.
The report found black and white players roomed together and that the extra practices — run by a black assistant coach — were for all reserve players. Terms like “crabs” that some players believed were derogatory toward blacks were taken by coaches from outside motivational material.
But the report also notes that even before the players’ allegations some observers told Bollant that Divilbiss was too hard on players.
Thomas said background checks turned up no problems when Divilbiss was hired and Bollant had “a comfort level” in having Divilbiss on his staff.
University trustee James Montgomery said the report makes clear that many of the allegations aren’t backed up by facts. But Montgomery, who is black and a lawyer, would still like to hear directly from the players.
The basketball lawsuit followed a series of complaints made by former football player Simon Cvijanovic, alleging coach Tim Beckman and some staff members tried to force him to play hurt and that he had been misled about his injuries. Two other former players later said Beckman had mistreated them.
An investigation by a different law firm into those allegations continues.
Separately, former soccer player Casey Conine sued the university, coach Janet Rayfield, Thomas and others in May alleging she was allowed to play after a concussion in violation of school policy. Her case is pending.
The combined accusations have led to widespread criticism of the university.