URBANA, Ill. (AP) — Seven former University of Illinois women’s basketball players sued the university Wednesday, accusing coach Matt Bollant and a former assistant of violating their civil rights by using race to divide the team and try to force some players out.
The lawsuit adds to this year’s stream of accusations against the school’s sports programs over player treatment. Some of the plaintiffs’ parents made similar complaints to the school in May, claims that are being investigated by a university-hired law firm along with one from a former football player who says his injuries weren’t properly handled. A former soccer player has sued the school over the handling of her concussions.
The university, athletic director Mike Thomas, Bollant, former assistant Mike Divilbiss and university trustees are named in the lawsuit, which was filedsE in federal court in Champaign. The ex-players seek at least $10 million in damages.
Bollant and Divilbiss are accused of holding segregated practices, using more severe discipline for black players and taking other steps that the players believe were designed to pressure black players and white players who supported them to leave the team, according to the lawsuit. Some of the accusations date to Bollant’s hiring in 2012, while others address the two most recent seasons.
“The coaches were trying to run them off the program, and give up their scholarships and leave,’ attorney Terry Ekl, who represents the players, said Wednesday. They declined comment through Ekl.
Chancellor Phyllis Wise said she was disappointed the players sued before the law firm’s investigation is finished.
“I cannot stress enough that any time we learn that a student feels the experience at Illinois isn’t excellent, we take those concerns seriously,” Wise said. “We intended that through the external review process the student-athletes and their families would help us better understand their concerns and perceptions.”
She also noted Thomas has recently added staff and made policy changes intended to prevent future problems.
Bollant, who was hired in 2012 after coaching at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, wasn’t reachable for comment. Divilbiss resigned from the university after the initial accusations became public and hasn’t responded to phone calls since then. Both men are white.
Five of the former players — Alexis Smith, Nia Oden, Amarah Coleman, Sarah Livingston and Taylor Tuck— are black; Taylor Gleason and Jacqui Grant are white.
According to the lawsuit, Smith, Oden and Tuck were called “toxic” and “crabs” who pull each other down. The alleged segregated practices were referred to as “the dog pound.”
The players also say the coaches implied at least some of the black plaintiffs were unintelligent, undisciplined “west-side ghetto” players.
“The grossly inappropriate statements were made by Divilbiss but in the presence of Bollant,” Ekl said. “He should have stopped Divilbiss from doing it.”
Similarly, the lawsuit claims, the athletic director should have prevented their actions. The players also accuse Bollant of trying to recruit more white players. He replaced Jolette Law, a black woman who recruited Smith, Oden and Tuck before she was fired by Thomas in 2012. Law was 69-93 in five seasons at Illinois.
While no recordings or other concrete records of the alleged actions have been presented, Ekl believes the ex-players’ testimony will make for powerful evidence.
“I’ve got seven extremely credible girls,” he said, adding that he’s talked to two other players who he believes may join the lawsuit. “This was not an isolated situation where these statements were being made. It was pervasive and ongoing.”
In May, former Illinois soccer player Casey Conine sued the school, Thomas, soccer coach Janet Rayfield and others, claiming she was allowed to play in 2014 with what turned out to be a concussion, then cleared to play again without a doctor’s OK.
Earlier that month, former Illinois football player Simon Cvijanovic accused coach Tim Beckman and members of his staff of pressuring him to play through serious injuries last season. Cvijanovic also claimed the school hadn’t informed him of the extent of an earlier knee surgery. He has indicated he may file a lawsuit.
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