CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina is not alone in conducting an examination of the culture surrounding its women’s basketball program. In recent months, several other schools have undertaken similar investigations – with some coaches being fired.
Former Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph, who spent 16 years at the school, was fired last month after an independent investigation found that players said they were bullied by the coach, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The players said Joseph manipulated them and was mentally, emotionally and verbally abusive.
On Monday, Northern Kentucky announced that it was conducting an independent review and assessment of the women’s basketball program into concerns raised by student-athletes, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer. Multiple players allege that Northern Kentucky coach Camryn Whitaker was emotionally abusive towards them; one former player described a toxic environment.
In 2016, Connie Yori resigned at Nebraska citing personal reasons while the school was investigating possible mistreatment of players. That same year, Loyola-Chicago fired basketball legend Sheryl Swoopes after a similar three-month investigation prompted by a wave of player transfers.
Duke also conducted an investigation into its women’s basketball program and coach Joanne P. McCallie after a series of transfers in 2016, but later decided she would remain the coach.
Neither administrators nor former players contacted will discuss the specific issues at North Carolina, but multiple “student-athletes and others” raised concerns, the university said in a press release on Monday. The school hired a Charlotte-based law firm to conduct an investigation while the coaching staff, including Hall of Fame head coach Sylvia Hatchell and three assistant coaches, was placed on paid leave as the firm looks into the culture of the program.
Six players have transferred from North Carolina’s program in the last five years and there are currently four more in the NCAA transfer portal, according to a person with access to the system but not authorized to discuss it publicly. They are: Destinee Walker, who entered her name on March 12; Kennedy Boyd and Stephanie Watts, who entered their names on March 25; and Jocelyn Jones, who entered her name on March 27. A fifth, Emily Sullivan, entered her name on Feb. 4 but later withdrew it.
Walker, who announced on Twitter last month that she was transferring, did not respond to messages from The News & Observer seeking comment. Jones’ father also declined to comment. Efforts by The News & Observer to reach Boyd’s family have been unsuccessful.
Debbie Antonelli, a former N.C. State player who broadcasts men’s and women’s basketball for ESPN and others, said she knew Hatchell to be “hard-working” and “passionate.” But, generally speaking, she said coaches and players need safeguards.
“If you cross the line, you cross the line and coaches know that,” Antonelli said. “But if you don’t and get slandered for something you didn’t do, that’s hard to recover from.”
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma told reporters this week that coaches have become afraid of upsetting players in fear that they will transfer.
“The NCAA, the athletic directors and society has made them afraid of their players,” he said, according to ESPN. “Every article you read: ‘This guy’s a bully. This woman’s a bully. This guy went over the line. This woman was inappropriate.’
“Yet the players get off Scot-free in everything.”
Athletes transfer for various reasons, including lack of playing time, to play for a more successful program, their coach leaves or is fired, to pursue a graduate degree at a different school, etc. But four players in one year is considered to be fairly high, especially from a young team that appeared to be turning a corner.
After missing the NCAA Tournament in 2016, 2017 and 2018, the Tar Heels made it as a No. 9 seed this past season but lost in the first round to California. They finished 18-15, which included wins over then-No. 1 Notre Dame and then-No. 7 N.C. State. It was North Carolina’s best finish since the 2014-15 season when it finished 26-9 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
All four members of North Carolina’s highly touted 2013 recruiting class transferred within two years: Diamond DeShields after her freshman year in 2014; and Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington after the 2014-15 season.
Gray, who currently plays for the Dallas Wings, declined to respond to The News & Observer’s request for comment Wednesday through her agent, Jade-Li English. Efforts by The News & Observer to reach Washington, DeShields and Mavunga were unsuccessful.
Hatchell’s program was also a primary focus of the lengthy NCAA investigation into academic fraud at North Carolina. Academic counselor Jan Boxill was the only athletic-related staff member, in any sport, to be charged with wrongdoing. In 2017, the NCAA said it failed to find any violations of its rules and did not impose any sanctions against Boxill or the school.
In a statement Monday through her attorney, Wade Smith, Hatchell said she would “cooperate fully” with the investigation.
“I look forward to a prompt conclusion of this matter,” the statement read, “and the continuation of our very successful women’s basketball program.”
Staff writer Andrew Carter and columnist Luke DeCock contributed to this report.
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