Report: Illini players treated 'harshly' but no evidence of racism

Univ. of Illinois coaches accused of bullying, racism
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Story highlights

  • Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigns from University of Illinois
  • Report finds that women's basketball players were treated badly
  • Report says bad treatment was racially motivated

(CNN)A report released by the University of Illinois this week acknowledges that female basketball players were treated badly, personally attacked and singled out but ultimately found none of the behavior was racially motivated or qualified as harassment.

The report comes after athletes alleged pervasive emotional abuse by coaches, racism and daily verbal attacks, including going after them for personal issues such as learning disabilities, family life or the neighborhood in which they grew up.
    In a related development, the chancellor of the university, Phyllis Wise, resigned Thursday, saying in a statement, "[E]xternal issues have arisen over the past year that have distracted us from the important tasks at hand. I have concluded that these issues are diverting much needed energy and attention from our goals."
    The 226-page report on the basketball program, and the investigation, was done by a law firm also hired to provide legal advice to the university on potential lawsuits over the claims it was investigating.
    It states that there is "broad evidence of harsh language, but no intentional physical or emotional abuse or a pattern of mistreatment. Language, tone, and volume of criticism were not disproportionately directed at African-American players."
    Seven of the women have filed a federal racial discrimination lawsuit against the university. A spokesman for them -- Tom Grusecki, the father of one of the women -- said they'll wait for their day in court, noting that the university "summarily dismissed all of the players' claims yet the Office of Diversity report highlights incidents of abuse and harassment of players."
    According to the university, those women declined to be interviewed by investigators in person and provided written statements instead.
    Grusecki said they answered, "Every question that was asked. Every one."
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    The newly released report seems to contradict an earlier internal university investigation.
    It found that "multiple witnesses, including all African-American players, perceived that coaching decisions were based on race as were coaches' relationships with players," and called the findings "concerning," though said they did not violate any official university policy.
    That report was done by the university's Office of Diversity, Equity and Access. When asked about the contradiction, the university said, "there is no discrepancy."
    The allegations first came to light in the spring, when players' parents started writing letters to the university complaining of pervasive emotional abuse and occasional racism.
    Eight former players -- seven of them part of the lawsuit against the university -- talked to CNN, and all said that assistant coach Mike Divilbiss verbally attacked players daily, going after them for personal issues such as learning disabilities, family life or the neighborhood in which they grew up, which the report confirms.
    The players also said the assistant coach treated the black women on the team more harshly than the white women.
    The report acknowledges that if a black player made a particularly good pass or play, Divilbiss referred to it as "ghetto moves," which Divilbiss said was a compliment.
    The conclusion was that though "coach Divilbiss treated players harshly in a number of incidents, and more harshly overall than other coaches," the investigators said they found "no evidence that he criticized players differently ... because of their race."
    Divilbiss could not be reached for comment. He left the university in May after coming to what administrators call a "mutual understanding" with head coach Matt Bollant.
    In this newest investigation, the report shows that even Bollant agreed Divilbiss "crossed the line" on a few occasions, and on several occasions stepped in to stop Divilbiss' harsh treatment of players. Bollant remains at the university, and the majority of the criticism of him in the report was not about his own behavior, but that he "too often watched Divilbiss cross the line and allowed him to go too far."
    Another major allegation of the players was that a group of mostly black players were separated in practices from the mostly white starters and labeled the "dog pound." The report says the players were separated based on ability and not race.
    The report says that those who complained "frequently conflated allegations of racism with claims that coaches Bollant and Divilbiss literally 'played favorites' -- they gave more playing time to athletes they recruited," predominantly white, than to those recruited by the former head coach.
    The report found that there are areas for improving coach-player relationships and made recommendations for changing the coaching expectations policy to specifically say coaches should avoid "singling out players with negative criticism," "using belittling language" or "discussing individual players' personal circumstances."
    It also recommended Illinois prohibit "retaliation" against players who speak out against coaching behavior.
    Bollant on Friday said the findings of harsh coaching and allegations of racism were false, and he accused some of the players of having attitude problems. Assistant coach Tianna Kirkland said that while the definition of harsh is subject to interpretation, she "wouldn't stand by and watch if there was racial discrimination going on."
    A second, separate investigation remains open, looking into allegations that players on the women's team and several players on the football team were mistreated for injuries.
    University of Illinois football players also complained that injuries were not taken seriously. One told CNN that his scholarship was allegedly threatened by coaches as he limped across the field with a knee injury.
    University policy says an athlete can't lose his or her scholarship because of injury or performance in sport.
    In July, the university's athletic director, Mike Thomas, acknowledged that the allegations are serious and call into question the culture of the program.
    "I was certainly troubled by all the allegations. And those allegations don't match our core values," he said. "Certainly our student athletes need to be in an environment that's safe, that's healthy, that takes their well-being as primary importance."
    Head football coach Tim Beckman has previously declined to comment through a university spokeswoman.