Seven former players on the University of Illinois’s women’s basketball team have filed a lawsuit against their old school after their allegations that the coaches frequently exhibited racist behaviors. And the former athletes have opened up to CNN about the mistreatment they all endured while on the school’s teams.
Eight former members of the team all described assistant coach Mike Divilbiss as verbally abusive. He attacked them for a number of reasons, including their race, their families, or where they grew up.
Former player Amarah Coleman explained how Divilbiss used practices to diminish players’ morale: “In practice when a black player would do a certain move, [Divilbiss] would make a comment stating ‘that’s the West Side coming out’ [referring to Chicago’s predominantly black West Side].” It was clear, she said, “coach was saying it to make fun of where they are from.”
Divilbiss even went so far as to segregate his team, holding separate team practices that were reserved primarily for the Black players. These practices were referred to as “the dog pound,” and the women at these practices understood that they were not in the team’s good favor at that time. Regular team practices consisted mostly of white players. According to the team, players at the dog pound practices were called “crabs”:
Crabs can never get out of a bucket because they always pull each other down. That is how he explained it in practice. … They all just climb on top of each other and pull each other down. Like, bums, we are just dragging everybody down.
This is just another way in which Divilbiss degraded his team, dehumanizing the players by comparing them to animals and referring to their practice as a “pound.”
And the segregation didn’t end on the court. Divilbiss didn’t approve of players who were recruited by a former African-American coach living with one of head coach Matt Bollant’s (who is white) recruits, according to Alexis Smith, another former player.
“[Divilbiss] said, ‘I feel like you are trying to poison these girls. Why did you even move in with them? You are trying to poison them,’” Smith recalled.
Kierra Morris, a player who left due to a medical disability, shared a similar story, saying the coaches feared her “culture carrying over” to new recruits.
The girls also revealed they were segregated when traveling to games; separate hotel rooms were booked for the Black and white teammates.
The underlying problem with incidents such as these occurring at universities is that many players are not likely to speak up until they have left the team, transferred or graduated (if they choose to speak up at all). In some cases, it could be out of fear of losing an athletic scholarship. This gives the coaches and staff a significant power over the players and sometimes guarantees their silence. Sure enough, in this case, none of the current players came forward; all of the women waited until they were no longer on the team to come forward.
Alarmingly, other staff members who witnessed the incidents said and did nothing, including Bollant. According to former player Alexis Smith, “[Bollant] wouldn’t stand up for us. He wouldn’t tell coach D to stop. Coach Bollant would be quiet and continue with practice.”
Because of this, many former players as well as their families cast much blame on Bollant for standing by while Divilbiss behaved the way he did. One parent said, “When you are the head coach, you should stop that when you see it. If you can’t stop bullying amongst your own staff, that is a problem.”