Friday, July 10, 2015

Toxic Athletic Culture at Univ. of Illinois Sparks Investigation & Outrage

Ex-assistant coach Mike Divilbiss during a Feb 14th game 

Not since radio talk-show host Don Imus referred to black players on the Rutgers women's basketball team as "nappy-headed ho's" during a live broadcast back in April of 2007 has the ugly taint of bigotry intersected with women's college sports and mainstream media in such a blatant and high-profile manner.
The troubling allegations of emotional abuse of members of the University of Illinois women's basketball team by two members of the coaching staff that began to attract national media attention back in May have left me feeling both angered and encouraged.

Angered at the despicable way some of the young female student-athletes were treated by former assistant head coach Mike Divilbiss (pictured above) and current head coach Matt Bollant; and encouraged that the shocking allegations of the way they treated their players based on race is starting to get the national mainstream media attention it deserves.

And media attention is what this story is going to get as seven former members of the team have filed a $10 million dollar suit against the university and the coaches in federal court in Urbana, Illinois.

As Sarah Ganim reported in a July 7th article on, "It was common, these women told CNN, for an assistant coach to refer to race, and to tell them their "culture" was "poison" or "toxic" to the starting team, which was predominantly white. During road games, the players say they were segregated -- black players separated from the white ones in hotel rooms. It was so bad, the women said, four players from this past season transferred out of the program at the University of Illinois to other schools."
According to allegations detailed in letters sent to university officials from the families of Illinois players Taylor Gleason, Jacqui Grant and Taylor Tuck, former assistant head coach Mike Divilbiss regularly berated African-American members of the team because of their culture, the neighborhoods where some of the players came from; even their style of play.

Illinois head coach Matt Bollant
Even more disturbing are allegations that head coach Matt Bollant (pictured left) kept the white and black members of the team segregated in hotel rooms on road trips, and also segregated most of the black members onto a separate practice team known as "The Dog Pound" - whose members were openly mocked and verbally abused during practice by Divilbiss. 

According to parents of some of the players involved in the allegations, Divilbiss left the team on Thursday May 14th in the wake of an investigation initiated in late April by University of Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas.

On Tuesday I watched three of the mothers of these players being interviewed on CNN; two were black and one was white - all of them affirmed the allegations of verbal abuse based on race and the segregation of the team members by race. 

As a college athlete who played Division I football at Penn State University under head coach Joe Paterno, I understand the level of commitment and sacrifice required to manage the tricky balance of the demands of the classroom, athletics, family, social life and of course, self.

A self that is that is still young and developing; still learning the kinds of skills needed to cope with this thing called life.

So to me it's beyond comprehension that a couple of college coaches would use race, insults and division based on skin color as tactics to guide young student athletes who are there to learn and excel. What they've done to the psyches of these young women is beyond measure; especially coming at such a challenging stage of development in their lives. 

Like millions of others around the globe, I tuned into watch a number of the women's World Cup soccer matches over the past few weeks, and while I was definitely excited to see the US team capture another world cup with a convincing win over Japan, I was genuinely impressed with the level of professionalism, competitiveness, skill and intensity displayed by female athletes from around the globe.

As the record television ratings success of the World Cup final attest, televised women's sports have truly come of age in a highly competitive market. I don't mean to dismiss the many televised women's single tennis matches at all - we're talking team sports here.

As reported on Monday July 6th, the Sunday evening Fox broadcast of the US v. Japan final averaged a record 25.4 million television viewers in America; and it peaked at 30.9 million viewers between 8:30 - 8:45pm - that's THE most-watched soccer match in American history. Period.

Men or Women.

It's not just that women's World Cup was a "must-see" event, it was an intense athletic competition you couldn't miss; and that's a huge step for women's athletics and opportunities for female athletes whether they are young girls or women on the professional level.

That's good for the nation and in the wake of the tragedy in Charleston and controversy over the flying of the Confederate Flag over government buildings, that women's match up was good for the fabric of our culture - to me it felt like a much-needed emotional salve. Chicken soup for our collective souls.

So as the Canyon of Heroes in downtown Manhattan prepares to bestow the honor of a ticker tape parade on the victorious World Cup team, let's be reminded that competitive sports is about unity, encouragement, sacrifice and sportsmanship.

Not the reprehensible kind of divisiveness, petty insults and hate cultivated by two college coaches who not only have no business coaching athletes; they lack a true understanding of the importance of character as a component of success both on and off the field.


A Black Panther Forever said...

Where are the minority representatives of color on the US soccer team. I think race factored in the charm of the all white (image) soccer team. I know there may be a bi-racial girl on the team... but imagery is VERY alive in America. If it was not maybe some African American would be seen with a women of color on his or her arms. So when we root for these teams look closely at the image. Do you think that the viewer's rating would have been high if there were Blacks leading the team? Rhetorical question.

culturegeist said...

Very interesting observations and a good question. As a former college athlete myself, and a regular sports fan as well, from my observation overall I'd have to say African-American female athletes are far more well represented in track, basketball and to a lesser extent volleyball than soccer. Your question is a complex one that I'm going to try and address in a blog post. Thanks for the comments and for checking out the blog.