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Sylvia Hatchell accused of racially insensitive remarks, forcing UNC players to play hurt

North Carolina Coach Sylvia Hatchell is on paid leave while the school investigates accusations voiced by parents of players. (Tony Gutierrez/AP)

Sylvia Hatchell, the University of North Carolina’s Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach and one of most revered figures in the sport, is under investigation over allegations that she made a series of racially offensive remarks — including one suggesting her players would get “hanged from trees with nooses” at an upcoming game if their performance didn’t improve — and that she tried to force players to compete through serious injuries, according to interviews with seven people with knowledge of the investigation, including six parents of current players.

The parents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution for their daughters. A larger group of parents made the allegations at a meeting with university administrators last Thursday evening in Chapel Hill, N.C. An agenda for the meeting, emailed to university officials by a parent and shared with The Washington Post, included two main discussion items: “1) Medical Treatment and/or lack thereof” and “2) Racially inappropriate remarks or behavior.”

At that meeting, according to people who were in attendance, parents raised concerns about situations in which three players reported feeling pressured by Hatchell to play through injuries. One later learned she needed corrective shoulder surgery. Another learned she’d had a torn tendon in her knee. A third said Hatchell had cast doubt on whether she had suffered a concussion. Parents blamed both Hatchell and a team doctor for these situations, according to people in the meeting.

In addition to the “nooses” remark, Hatchell also has been accused of trying to get her players to engage in a “war chant” to “honor” the Native American ancestry of an assistant coach.

On Monday afternoon, the university announced it had put Hatchell and her entire staff on paid leave “due to issues raised by student-athletes and others,” and had hired an outside law firm to investigate. The substance of the issues had not been made public.

In a statement Thursday, North Carolina said it would have no further comment until the review is completed.

“Carolina is committed to the well-being of our student-athletes and to ensuring that they have the best experience possible in and outside of competition,” the statement said.

Hatchell declined an interview request. Her attorney, Wade Smith, said in a phone interview Thursday that the comments attributed to her by parents of players are incorrect and misconstrued.

“She said, ‘They’re going to take a rope and string us up, and hang us out to dry,’” Smith said.

“There is not a racist bone in her body. . . . A very high percentage of the people who have played for her and who love her are African-American women. She is a terrific coach, and a truly world-class human being.”

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Smith said Hatchell didn’t recall the allegations about pressuring injured players to return to play, but said she never would have tried to convince anyone to play whom the medical staff had not cleared.

The outcome of the investigation, according to parents of current Tar Heels, will determine the size of a pending exodus of players. Four of the team’s 14 current players have filed paperwork seeking to transfer, according to parents with knowledge of their situations, and two additional players are considering doing the same if Hatchell keeps her job.

On Monday, hours after the university’s announcement, Hatchell released a statement.

“I’ve had the privilege of coaching more than 200 young women during my 44 years in basketball,” Hatchell said. “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.”

Debated comments

Hatchell, 67, is a native of Gastonia, N.C., a rural suburb of Charlotte that — as she is fond of pointing out in her soft, North Carolina accent — was also the birthplace of future NBA stars James Worthy and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd. She has coached at North Carolina since 1986, won a national championship in 1994, and led the Tar Heels to Final Four appearances in 2006 and 2007.

Including 11 seasons at Division II Francis Marion in South Carolina, Hatchell has amassed more than 1,000 career victories. She is one of just six women’s college basketball coaches to reach that mark, a group that includes her late friend, Pat Summitt, the legendary Tennessee coach who hired Hatchell to coach junior varsity there in the 1970s.

In 2013, Hatchell was inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Just a few weeks later, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and her rehabilitation and survival inspired her book, “Fight! Fight!: Discovering Your Inner Strength When Blindsided By Life.”

In recent years, Hatchell’s program has been marked by mediocre records and high-profile players transferring, some of which Hatchell has blamed publicly on the 2015 academic scandal in which a longtime academic advisor to the women’s basketball team played a pivotal role. The NCAA didn’t impose punishments on any North Carolina coaches because the so-called “paper courses” taken by athletes at the center of the scandal, including women’s basketball players, were also available to regular students, and thus didn’t constitute an unfair benefit for athletes.

According to parents, this current series of pending transfers, however, is owed at least in part to a rift with players caused by a series of bizarre racial comments they accuse Hatchell of making over the past two seasons.

The first occurred during the 2017-18 season, which ended with a 15-16 record for the Tar Heels, 4-12 in the ACC. In the locker room during a game late in that season, according to six parents who spoke to their daughters after the game, Hatchell said that she should have known she couldn’t win championships with “a bunch of old mules.” In addition to viewing the comment as racially offensive, the players and their parents also found it strange, because the Tar Heels were a relatively young college team.

Smith, Hatchell’s attorney, said she does not recall this incident.

“It could’ve happened, but she would not have associated that with anything racial,” Smith said.

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.

Williams-Johnson was visibly uncomfortable with Hatchell’s comments, according to two parents who spoke to their daughters about the incident. Williams-Johnson, who retired after last season, did not respond to several calls and messages seeking comment.

Smith said Hatchell did not recall this incident, but that she may have been trying to get her players to do the tomahawk chop in advance of a game against Florida State.

The “noose” remark, according to six parents who spoke to their daughters about it, occurred this season after a game against Howard, a historically black university. North Carolina won handily, 85-63, but Hatchell was displeased with the team’s play and in the locker room after the game, according to the six parents, warned of the consequences of a similar performance a few days later at Louisville.

The parents differed on the precise wording. One mother said the comment was, “When you go to Louisville, if you perform like you did tonight, they’re going to have nooses outside the arena, and they’re going to hang you by your necks from trees.” According to one father, he was told Hatchell said, “We’re going up to Louisville. Those people are going to be waiting with nooses to hang you from trees.” The parents were unanimous that their daughters heard the words “noose” and “tree.”

Smith was similarly adamant that Hatchell said she would never use the word “noose,” and that her comment had been about being “hung out to dry.”

At the meeting between parents and North Carolina administrators last week, when this incident was discussed, Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham acknowledged he had been made aware of the remark within a day or two, and that he had ordered Hatchell to apologize to the team. She eventually did, according to parents, but only begrudgingly, after refusing a request by one player during a film session that she apologize, and then a request from another player in a phone call. Cunningham deferred a request to comment to a university spokesman.

When this remark was discussed during the meeting, according to people who were in the room, one African American parent became particularly emotional: Michael Jones, father of Jocelyn Jones, a sophomore guard. A city councilman in Richmond, Michael Jones was a standout linebacker at Colorado in the late 1980s.

“Bubba, you know me; you mean to tell me my daughter has to go through, in 2019, what I went through in 1985,” Jones told Cunningham, the athletic director, according to people in the room. Reached by phone this week, Jones did not dispute making this remark, and declined further comment.

Health concerns

At the meeting, parents also voiced concerns about a series of situations involving injured players and their interactions with Hatchell and team medical staff.

Parents differed on whether the blame for these situations belonged to Hatchell or the team physician, Dr. Harry Stafford. Stafford deferred a request to comment to a university spokesman, who declined to address the issues raised by parents.

According to people who were in the room, the parents of junior guard Emily Sullivan described a situation from her freshman year. In December 2016, during a game against LSU, Sullivan dislocated her shoulder while fighting for a rebound. On the television broadcast, Sullivan can be seen collapsing to the court in pain after the play, which occurred in the game’s last 10 seconds. Sullivan’s parents immediately suspected their daughter had torn something in her shoulder.

North Carolina medical staff waited three weeks to perform an MRI exam, Sullivan’s parents said at the meeting, and when they finally did, Stafford told the Sullivans their daughter had suffered a dislocation with swelling, but could continue to play with the aid of cortisone shots for the pain. Stafford assured the Sullivans there was no tear in their daughter’s shoulder, they said in the meeting, and told them the Tar Heels needed her to play because another player — Hillary Fuller, a senior — recently had learned her career was over because of knee damage.

Sullivan played the remainder of her freshman season and her entire sophomore season with her shoulder regularly slipping out of its socket, her parents said at the meeting, but Stafford assured them their daughter didn’t need surgery. Entering her junior year, they considered seeking outside opinions, they told school officials.

In discussions with Hatchell, however, according to Sullivan’s parents, the coach discouraged her from getting surgery, which could cause her to miss part of the upcoming season.

Sullivan got two outside opinions anyway, and both doctors found she had a torn labrum and needed surgery, her parents told school officials. One of the doctors, after examining medical records from 2016, said he thought Sullivan tore her labrum back then, her parents said in the meeting.

After she finally got surgery in October 2018 — nearly two years after the initial injury — the surgeon informed her parents she had actually suffered three tears to her labrum, and her rotator cuff required complete reconstruction.

The parents at the meeting also discussed a situation involving Kennedy Boyd, a freshman guard, who suffered a concussion in an exhibition game before this season.

Boyd’s parents said at the meeting that she told them after she had missed a few weeks of practice, Hatchell approached her one day and asked “if she’d had a concussion or if she had brain damage.” Confused if the coach was joking, her parents said at the meeting, Boyd told Hatchell she had a concussion. According to Boyd’s parents, Hatchell then informed her she’d been in a car accident years ago, and the doctors told her she’d had a concussion, but she didn’t believe them.

In one situation that played out this season, the team doctor Stafford suggested, in a text message reviewed by The Post, that Hatchell ignored him when he tried to keep a player off the court.

During a Feb. 17 game against Virginia, Stephanie Watts, one of the team’s highest scorers this season, hurt her knee. That afternoon, Stafford texted Watt’s father, Stephen, about the injury.

“She has a hyper extended knee we are going to hold her out as a precaution,” Stafford wrote.

Watts missed the rest of the season, but in practice, parents told administrators last week, Stafford and trainers put her through workouts, with the stated goal of getting her healthy to play in either the ACC tournament, starting March 7, or the NCAA tournament, starting March 23.

Sharp pain in her knee persisted, however, the parents said during the meeting. In a workout before one of North Carolina’s games in the ACC tournament, Watts told Hatchell she was still dealing with too much pain to play, the parents said. In reply, according to parents with knowledge of the situation, Hatchell informed Watts that WNBA scouts would be in attendance, and that they would “want to see if she can play through pain.”

According to last week’s meeting attendees, Watts’s father, who submitted a written statement read by others, was angered by the situation and encouraged his daughter to get a second opinion. When Watts told Stafford she was going to see someone else, she later told several people, Stafford for the first time described her injury as a torn tendon.

The second doctor Watts consulted confirmed a tear in her medial patellar retinaculum. The injury didn’t require surgery, the other doctor told Watts, but she needed at least eight weeks’ rest.

In a text message to Watts’s father March 10, Stafford said he’d informed Hatchell at an unclear prior date that Watts’s injury had ended her season.

“I notified the training staff and coach Hatchell that she wouldn’t make it back for the season. And we would keep working with her but don’t expect her to play,” wrote Stafford, who then addressed the confusion over why he didn’t initially describe the injury as a torn tendon.

“My concern is that Stephanie says I did not tell her what was wrong with her knee. Which is something that I would never do. I don’t always use the technical terms that are in a MRI report because it often sounds worse than it is . . . I meet (sic) with Stephanie for 20 minutes and pulled up her mri and told her the retinaculim was injured . . . I said some people take two weeks some people take 8 . . . I apologize for this confusion. I have never had this happen before . . . I have never and will never force someone to play that couldn’t.”

It’s unclear, from the text message, exactly when Stafford claimed he informed Hatchell that Watts was done for the season. But even in the days after this March 10 text exchange, as North Carolina prepared for the NCAA tournament, Hatchell told reporters Watts was “day-to-day” and could return for the Tar Heels’ first-round game against California.

Under scrutiny

In its statement Monday, North Carolina said it had hired Charlotte-based law firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein to investigate and “assess the culture of the women’s basketball program and the experience of our student-athletes.” No timetable was set.

Hatchell makes a base salary of $380,000 this year, according to her contract, with a supplemental payment of $140,000 if she still has her job April 16. She also makes $150,000 annually in an endorsement deal with Nike. If she is fired for cause, Hatchell’s contract calls for North Carolina to owe her nothing past her termination date; if she’s fired without cause, the university owes her the remaining money on her contract. Next season, her base salary is scheduled to increase to $400,000, with a supplemental payment of $150,000 next April. Her current contract term ends next June.

The Tar Heels lost their NCAA tournament opener to California and finished 18-15 on the season. The appearance in the tournament was Hatchell’s first since 2015.

In the news conference after the loss to Cal, Hatchell expressed admiration for her players and excitement for next season, when her underclassmen would be healthy and a few new recruits would add talent.

“We have a really good group coming in, and with the ones we got, hopefully get some injuries healed up and stuff like that. . . . We have some kids coming next year that will put us on another level, so I’m excited about that,” Hatchell said.