CHAMPAIGN – Investigations deal with facts and evidence. What can you prove?
A comprehensive independent investigation by Chicago law firm Pugh, Jones & Johnson concluded that there were not enough facts or evidence to prove allegations of racial discrimination and abusive coaching against the Illinois women's basketball program and the coaching staff.
The review – which parsed over 18,000 documents, conducted 33 interviews, took statements from the eight former players making the accusations and reviewed hours of film and practice film – depicts a team in turmoil. It paints former assistant Mike Divilbiss, who officially departed the program in May, as a hard-driving coach who seemed to get harsher with piling losses and head coach Matt Bollant as a man who struggled to rein in Divilbiss and shield his players from splintering due to negativity within the program.
But the review could not find evidence that the coaching staff was racially discriminatory in its practices. In fact, evidence disproved some of the most severe allegations. “Dog Pound” practices may have been ill-named, but they were not discriminatory as practice logs show that both Caucasian and African-American players participated in the extra workouts for bench players. Room assignments were not segregated by race. Team travel documents showed that, in fact, white and black players roomed together on every road trip.
The review doesn't clear the coaches of missteps with leading their program, but it certainly appears to clear the coaches and the university of the most serious allegations.
“We always remain open-minded in terms of whether or not some new data will come in at some later date,” University of Illinois chancellor Phyllis Wise said. “As of now, we consider this report to be thorough and very well-documented.”
Does this clear Matt Bollant of any wrongdoing? Bollant could be accused of allowing his frustrated assistant coach – the “bad cop” to his “good cop” – spoil his program with a far-too-negative and over-bearing approach. Even if the players can't prove these allegations, they obviously felt uneasy enough due to the culture and Divilbiss's coaching style to rush out of the program, several within just a few years of signing up to play for Bollant and Divilbiss. But the investigation revealed Bollant was mostly deemed supportive of his players, though maybe negligent in letting Divilbiss have such a negative influence for so long (Bollant did have corrective discussions with Divilbiss when he thought the assistant “crossed the line”). But not negligent enough to allow racial discrimination nor abusive coaching. The investigation didn't uncover enough to dismiss Bollant, according to athletic director Mike Thomas. “As it relates to Matt and his situation, even from early to late spring, he was already working on things within his program, how he was going to do things differently, in regards to staffing, the roles that people were going to be playing,” Thomas said. “That's been in the works for some time, and how they were going to interact with their student-athletes.
But Bollant has dug himself a huge hole. Two of his best returning players and top-six scoers are part of the lawsuit – rising junior Jacqui Grant and rising sophomore Amarah Coleman, both now at DePaul. He lost two more of his top-six scorers to graduation (Ivory Crawford and Brittany Carter). Sophomore Chatrice White will be an All-Big Ten candidate after averaging 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds as a freshman, and senior point guard Kyley Simmons (9.7 ppg) is a team leader. But no other returner averaged more than nine minutes per game last season. Bollant was a slam-dunk hire in 2012 based on his Wisconsin Green-Bay record (148-19 overall, 85-5 Horizon League). But based on his current roster – the result of so many transfers – his Illinois tenure (43-51 overall, 17-38 Big Ten) might not take much an uptick in his fourth season.
Mike Thomas said he did not suggest separating from Divilbiss. Which is probably the right decision. A solid chain of command and delegation is important in any organizational structure. The athletic director should be in charge of his staff and the coaches. He should let the coaches manage its staff, and if the A.D. doesn't like the way the coach manages his staff/program, the A.D. should find a new coach. “My discussion with Matt had to do with an overall assessment of his program, certainly Matt took that to include his staff,” Thomas said. “That was a recommendation from Matt in separating from Coach Divilbiss, and certainly a recommendation I supported.”
The U of I must further emphasize avenues for students to raise concerns. The review states that players felt they couldn't approach Illinois assistants LaKale Malone and Tianna Kirkland – both African-Americans – with their concerns about racial discrimination because they didn't think the two assistants had any authority. Six of the eight players who graduated or transferred had an exit interview with the athletic department and only one player described “racial tension” within the team. Either they had a change of heart after those exit meetings or felt they couldn't honestly raise these concerns with anyone within the DIA. Most of the review's suggestions suggest the DIA provide and highlight avenues for student-athletes to raise concerns, and Thomas said the department has and will heed those recommendations.
What constitutes “crossing the line” in coaching nowadays? Most would agree that there are definite behavior (physical contact, medical misconduct, inappropriate relationships, etc.) that are strictly prohibited. But what can and can't a coach say? As the review states, determining “'abusive coaching' is not a straight-forward task.” The review found “broad evidence of harsh language.” But what separates “tough love” from mental abuse? The review found that Divilbiss used some slurs and swear words that, in the wrong context, could be deemed inappropriate, but in a different context could just be seen as colorful speech in a comfortable setting, even if those words probably shouldn't have been used by a university employee around student-athletes. These are questions that all programs, not just Illinois, must re-evaluate. “I think it is ever-evoling, and I think it's not just a question for us at the University of Illinois, but also across the country about where that line is,” Thomas said. “I can tell you I get engaged in a lot of conversations about where that line is, and I'm talking outside this campus. I think that's something that's going to be in the spotlight not just for the near future but a good amount of time to come.”
The eight accusers did not interview with the law firm running the independent review. But they did participate, with all issuing statements to the reviewers. “We would have really, really liked it if they had been willing to be interviewed, because the investigation would have been more complete,” Wise said. All the players were interviewed during the April internal review by the Office of Diversity, Equity & Access (ODEA), and did not reveal enough evidence of racial discrimination or abusive coaching for the university to take further action. The accusers' legal representation said the review was biased because it was paid for by the university. But the university paid for the independent review because it wanted a thorough, yet swift, conclusion. The accusers had the opportunity to provide their evidence to the review. Instead, they will take their case to court.
The legal fight ahead will be interesting. Unless the accusers are holding on to smoking-gun evidence, they seem to have a difficult time in proving racial discrimination or abusive coaching – even though a civil trial (the accusers are asking for a whopping $10 million in damages) wouldn't require complete university guilt to reward the accusers damages. The university probably doesn't want this to drag on, and a settlement – Wise said the university has had no discussions about settlement – would end this quickly and privately. But a settlement opens a new can of worms. If the university thinks it is completely innocent, a settlement would set a dangerous precedent. Student-athletes across the country and their parents – especially ones who want to see the downfall of coaches – may follow the Illini example and follow suit, looking to grab a few bucks for a an unsatisfying – but maybe not abusive – experience. Players may not only leave the house (transfer) but set it afire (making accusations and prompting costly investigations and lawsuits) on the way out. Wise's quote is worth repeating: “We always remain open-minded in terms of whether or not some new data will come in at some later date. As of now, we consider this report to be thorough and very well-documented.” We may not have all the information, but if we do not, it's on the accusers to provide the rest.
Hear Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Director of Athletics Mike Thomas on ESPN Radio 93.5's Tay and J Show: