By Dewar, Jennifer L
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – An outside investigation has concluded that allegations of racism within the University of Illinois women’s basketball program are unsupported.
The investigation, conducted by the law firm of Pugh, Jones & Johnson, included a review of more than 18,000 documents, 33 interviews, the statements of eight former players, and review of game and practice video footage.
It culminates with a report that recommends steps for clarifying expectations regarding coaches’ conduct, better defining the coach-parent relationship and enhancing resources for student-athletes to report concerns or complaints about their experience at Illinois.
Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise said she supports the investigation’s findings based on the information that was available. She said the campus will implement its recommendations as quickly as possible.
“We find any allegations troubling, because they don’t reflect our values,” Wise said. “Student-athletes are part of our Illinois family, and we want to ensure that their experiences are fulfilling, and that they are able to work toward an Illinois degree and prepare for lives of leadership and impact.”
“Going forward, we must ensure that our coaches and staff members have a clearer understanding of our core values and expectations, and that our student-athletes never ever feel they have nowhere to go when they have concerns,” she said.
The university initiated the investigation after some former players and their parents made specific allegations. Some of the families have filed a lawsuit against the university.
Investigators reported that allegations of players being segregated by race during practice and at hotels during road trips were unfounded. The review also found that extra practice sessions included both African-Americans and Caucasians and were not punitive, but were held to ensure that student-athletes who played less than 20 minutes in the previous game remained in shape and ready to play. Records of hotel room assignments show that the majority of room assignments featured mixed-race pairings.
Head Coach Matt Bollant and former Associate Head Coach Mike Divilbiss “acknowledged that the tone of their coaching at times was too negative,” the report states. “However, the evidence shows their actions did not constitute racial discrimination or harassment.”
The report stated that Divilbiss “treated players harshly in a number of incidents and more harshly overall than other coaches,” but found “no evidence that he criticized players differently or more frequently because of their race.”
The external investigation confirmed the findings of an initial review conducted by the University.
U. of I. Athletic Director Mike Thomas said he is committed to correcting the problems pointed out in the external report and ensuring that the university protects its student-athletes. He said the athletic department had been responsive to player complaints before the allegations surfaced and, as part of the department’s continuous efforts to improve the student-athlete experience, will implement changes based on the investigative report’s recommendations.
“Our number one priority is the well-being and health of our students,” he said. “We are implementing positive changes across our athletic department that we believe will become part of the best practices for other schools in the country in the coming years.”
Thomas said the changes would include implementing a formal coaches’ code of conduct, improving processes for student-athletes to report concerns and complaints, and creating a policy establishing clearer lines for appropriate interaction between coaches and parents or others who act on behalf of student-athletes.
“We can never have too many ways to help students connect with support,” Thomas said.
A separate evaluation continues of concerns related to sports medicine and the women’s basketball programs.
Statement by Timothy Killeen, President, University of Illinois:
“I support the campus’s effort to fully investigate this matter in a timely and thorough manner, and I appreciate the progress made through the Pugh, Jones & Johnson investigative efforts. I’m concerned with findings in the report indicating that harsh coaching techniques have been used on occasion. The report contains a solid set of recommendations that I fully support and expect will be implemented immediately. We are still awaiting a second report from the Franczek Radelet firm, and we hope to gain more information, if possible, from the student-athletes themselves.”
Statement by Phyllis M. Wise, Chancellor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:
“The independent investigation by Pugh, Jones & Johnson was both extensive and thorough in its review of the allegations against the women’s basketball program, although student-athletes involved in litigation with us declined to be directly interviewed. But, based on the information we had available, the allegations of racism and abusive behavior were not supported. But the report does recommend several actions to clarify expectations for our coaching staff and to enhance the resources for out student-athletes to report concerns of any kind. We will begin implementing those immediately. Our student-athletes become part of the Illinois family and we have the responsibility to ensure their experience here is fulfilling and prepare them for their lives and careers after college.”
Mike Thomas, Director of Athletics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign:
“Our top priority must always be the welfare of our student-athletes. And when allegations like these arise, we will always take them very seriously and investigate them quickly, impartially and thoroughly. This review certainly reinforces our understanding that we can never have too many different avenues available to our students for them to report concerns or issues. We are already working to implement the recommendations made by Pugh, Jones and Johnson to create more and better ways to connect our athletes with the support we promise them when they make the choice to join an Illinois athletic program.”