University of Illinois Sued $10M for Creating Racially Hostile Environment

universityEight former female basketball players of the University of Illinois have filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against the school’s athletic department for allegedly creating a racially hostile environment. The suit includes several members of the Board of Trustees, athletic director Mike Thomas, head coach Matt Bollant, and former associate head coach Mike Divilbiss. The women filed the lawsuit after allegedly suffering mental, psychological and physical abuse by members of the coaching staff.

The lawsuit alleges derogatory statements and racial stereotyping was ongoing from the coaching staff. Not only did coaches attempt to set team members against each other due to the color of their skin, but also when playing opposing teams which had a high ratio of African-American players. Reportedly, coaches would call teams with predominantly black players “undisciplined and unintelligent” while referencing white opponents as “disciplined and intelligent.” The suit also claims coaches described black players as “West Side ghetto” and attributed their playing style to “street ball.”

Coaches have also been accused of conducting segregated practices and prohibiting black and white players from rooming together during travel. The former players also alleged in the $10 million lawsuit against the University of Illinois that coaches disciplined black players more severely than white teammates. African-American players were indirectly labeled as dogs and put in the “dog pound” for punishment. White team members were also relegated to the “dog pound” and called “mascots” for supporting fellow teammates who were black.

The actions the women have attributed to their former coaches contradict the true role the coach is supposed to play in the team’s growth process. The role of the coach is to create the right conditions for players to stay motivated while building upon their potential and increasing their skill set. Coaches should push the mentality of a unified team which works together as a unit. Teamwork is very important for the success of any team; the behavior of the coaches alleged in the lawsuit suggests the opposite.

A team can have great superstars, but if they do not work as a unit their success is limited. The players of a productive team should not oppose each other but share common goals, with a level of interdependence that requires both verbal and physical interaction. Once teams come into existence through shared attitudes about a particular sport, the coach should encourage the players to appreciate each other’s contribution while working together to achieve peak performance and experience

Coaches should view teamwork as a high priority that requires constant attention. The claims against the athletic department at the University of Illinois does not speak of the desire to produce a winning team. A racially hostile environment is breeding ground for failure, not victory. The team which works as a cohesive unit has the best opportunity to reach its goal. The lawsuit states the treatment the women received was designed to persuade the players to quit the team or transfer.

Three player’s parents sent letters to the school in April describing the allegations mentioned in the suit. An internal investigation was launched by the university which found no merit in the women’s allegations. Ironically, however, Divilbiss left the program shortly after the investigation. In May, the plaintiffs sent letters to the university expressing their disappointment with the results of the internal investigation. In response to the continued complaints, the University of Illinois hired Pugh, Jones and Johnson, a Chicago law firm, to conduct an external review.

On Wednesday, Chancellor Phyllis Wise from the university released a statement expressing disappointment that the lawsuit was filed before the external investigation was completed. Wise stated:

I cannot stress enough that any time we learn that a student feels their experience at Illinois is not excellent, we take those concerns seriously. We intended that through the external review process the student-athletes and their families would help us better understand their concerns and perceptions.


As we await the results of the review, (Thomas) has already added staff to closely monitor team activities and has implemented additional ways for student-athletes to report any concerns they have.

Currently, eight former female basketball players have filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against the University of Illinois for allegedly creating a racially hostile environment. The plaintiff’s attorney, Terry Ekl, said the coaches tried to discourage his clients from continuing the program, relinquish their scholarships and flee. Some of the allegations in the lawsuit date to back to 2012 when Bollant was hired while others address the two most recent seasons.

By Cherese Jackson (Virginia)


Chicago Tribune: Former Illini women’s basketball players file $10 million federal suit
Lawsuit: Complaint filed against U. of I.
Top End Sports: The Role of the Sports Coach

All Images Courtesy of Jeremy Wilburn – Flickr License

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