Earlier this week, the University of North Carolina took the dramatic step of putting the entirety of its women’s basketball coaching staff on indefinite leave as it announced it was opening an investigation into “issues raised by student-athletes and others” about the program. The Washington Post reported Thursday that the impetus for the move was a series of racially insensitive remarks alleged to have been made by the team’s Hall of Fame coach Sylvia Hatchell. Players and their parents told administrators that Hatchell told her players following a game that if their play didn’t improve, they would get “hanged from trees with nooses.” The coaching staff is also accused of forcing players to play through serious injuries.
Parents of UNC players met with UNC administrators Thursday and aired their concerns about the 67-year-old Hatchell, who has been the coach in Chapel Hill for three-plus decades and has amassed the fourth most career wins in NCAA women’s basketball history. At the meeting, Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham reportedly acknowledged that the noose remark had been reported to the department within a day or two of the incident taking place in December. In addition, during the 2017–18 season, which UNC finished 4–12 in the ACC, parents of players said Hatchell told the team she should have known she couldn’t win with “a bunch of old mules,” a term they considered to be racially offensive. “Players also were bothered when Hatchell, near the end of a series of team practices, suggested the team engage in a ‘war chant’—similar to the ‘tomahawk chop’ used by fans of the Atlanta Braves and the Florida State Seminoles—to honor the partial Native American ancestry of an assistant coach, Tracey Williams-Johnson,” according to the Post.
Hatchell, through a lawyer, refuted the players’ various claims as largely a misunderstanding. “I’ve had the privilege of coaching more than 200 young women during my 44 years in basketball,” Hatchell said in a statement after being placed on leave Monday. “My goal has always been to help them become the very best people they can be, on the basketball court and in life. I love each and every one of the players I’ve coached and would do anything to encourage and support them. They are like family to me. I love them all. Of course, I will cooperate fully in this review. I look forward to a prompt conclusion of this matter and the continuation of our very successful women’s basketball program.”
North Carolina said Monday it had hired Charlotte-based law firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein to “assess the culture of the women’s basketball program and the experience of our student-athletes.”