During a practice for the University of North Carolina women’s basketball team in the fall of 2017, Sylvia Hatchell, the Tar Heels’ longtime coach, grew visibly frustrated about four injured players sitting out, according to parents of five players who later described the incident.
“Get them out of my sight. . . . They make me sick,” she said, according to the accounts players gave their parents.
A few months later, one of those injured players called her parents, in tears, and said the coaches had forced her to run sprints even though she hadn’t healed, her parents said. She reinjured her knee and missed the entire season. After the season, the player’s parents said, Hatchell’s top assistant criticized their daughter’s “lack of commitment to the program” and blamed her for the team missing the NCAA tournament.
Hatchell resigned Thursday, according to the university, after an independent investigation “led us to conclude that the program needed to be taken in a new direction,” according to Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham. North Carolina announced the move a day after The Washington Post informed officials about the contents of this story.
Hatchell’s decision to resign, the university said, came after an independent investigation by an outside law firm found she made racially insensitive comments but “is not viewed as a racist,” according to attorneys at Charlotte-based law firm Parker Poe Adams and Bernstein.
The lawyers hired by North Carolina also concluded, according to a university news release, that the team’s medical staff did not “surrender to pressure to clear players before they were medically ready.”
But according to interviews with 11 parents of current and former players, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation against their daughters, Hatchell fostered a culture in which injured players felt constant pressure to rush back to competition, a situation exacerbated by what parents characterized as medical and training staff who did not stand up for players and lax oversight from Hatchell’s superiors.
Last month, Cunningham faced a room full of parents outraged by what their daughters had told them about their treatment at North Carolina, according to several people at the meeting. The meeting March 28 in Chapel Hill, N.C. — which Cunningham participated in via teleconference, because he was in Kansas City, Mo., to watch the men’s team play in the NCAA tournament — prompted North Carolina to put Hatchell and her entire staff on paid leave, and hire a law firm to investigate allegations raised by players and parents.
Six players told their parents they had been pressured by coaches or the team doctor to take painkiller shots and keep playing rather than sit out and seek treatment, parents said in interviews with The Post.
Parents recalled, with horror, their daughters describing one teammate trying to play through injury a few seasons ago, needing an injection before every game and her knee drained of fluid at halftime. She eventually retired from basketball because of knee damage.
And the parents were particularly disturbed, they said in interviews, by how frequently North Carolina players learned through second opinions that they had more serious injuries than the team doctor described when he cleared them to play. Five members of the current team learned they had been playing through undiagnosed injuries, parents said in interviews, that included a torn labrum, a torn knee tendon and a broken hand.
“We’ve all learned we need to go outside UNC . . . in order to learn what’s actually wrong with our child,” one mother said in an interview.
Cunningham and the team doctor, Harry Stafford, did not reply to requests for comment, including an email to Cunningham that listed in detail the allegations made by parents and players. Steve Kirschner, spokesman for North Carolina athletics, said no one connected to the women’s basketball team was available for interviews while the university’s investigation was ongoing.
Hatchell, who was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013, declined an interview request.
In response to an email detailing the allegations against Hatchell, her attorney, Wade Smith, said in a prepared statement: “Coach Hatchell has always cared deeply for her players, and their well-being is extremely important to her. And, to repeat, she does not have a racist bone in her body.”
Asked whether Hatchell denied any of the allegations, Smith declined to comment further.
Playing through pain
In 2014 and 2015, as North Carolina’s athletic department was roiled by an academic scandal involving fraudulent “paper classes” frequented by athletes, four top women’s basketball players transferred. The departures decimated Hatchell’s roster and initiated a run of competitive mediocrity for North Carolina women’s basketball unseen since the first few years of Hatchell’s tenure, in the late 1980s.
In 2015-16, one season after going 26-9 and reaching the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament, the Tar Heels stumbled to a 14-18 finish. Hatchell was so desperate for players that season that, after North Carolina’s volleyball team finished its season, she convinced one of its players to join the basketball team.
The next season, according to parents, included alarming scenes in the locker room involving senior forward Hillary Fuller, who declined an interview request.
Fuller’s career at UNC had been riddled with injuries, including a torn Achilles’ tendon, and by her senior year she was visibly struggling with knee injuries, parents said.
“Poor Hillary. . . . I’m no doctor, but I can see when someone’s not running right,” one father said.
“It didn’t make any sense to anybody,” the father of another player said. “She was dragging her leg around, and they just put her back out there.”
Before each game in the locker room, players later told their parents, Stafford would inject Fuller’s knee with painkiller, and by halftime, her knee was often so swollen it required draining. Two players told their parents they saw Fuller, on several occasions, sobbing after games while clutching her knee.
By January 2017, in the middle of the season, Fuller informed her teammates and the coaching staff that her basketball career was over. Hatchell announced Fuller’s decision in a news conference after her final game, an 80-77 loss to Wake Forest.
“Fuller’s going to be out. She’s finished,” Hatchell said, according to the transcript of the news conference, before moving on to discuss the freshmen who would take her spot.
A few weeks later, Fuller wrote an open letter, published on North Carolina’s athletic website, that praised Hatchell and her assistants for the “non-stop encouragement” they provided.
“Growing up I never imagined I would be attending college at such a prestigious university like UNC, especially on a full-ride athletic scholarship,” Fuller wrote. “God blessed me with opportunity to come join such caring individuals.”
During the first game after Fuller retired, guard Stephanie Watts suffered an injury to her right knee she described after the game as a “minor hyperextension.” Stafford told Watts she could play through the injury, with the assistance of cortisone shots for the pain, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
After the season, according to the person, Watts discovered she had cartilage damage that required surgery.
Hurt vs. injured
Hatchell berated the four injured players at a practice early in the 2017-18 season, parents said they were told by their daughters. Later in the practice, the players told their parents, Hatchell told her team that it needed to know the difference between being injured and being hurt, and to develop toughness to play through the latter.
According to the parents, the players wondered whether their coach fully comprehended the distinction she was trying to make, because the players she had ordered removed from practice were indisputably injured. Three of them were recovering from knee surgery.
A few months later, one of those players told her parents that she had been forced to run sprints along with the rest of the team during a practice before she had completely recovered from knee surgery. The sprints were punitive, the parents said; the coaches were upset the team had just lost by 38 points to Florida State.
Their daughter ended up missing the entire season, and the Tar Heels finished 15-16, failing to gain a bid to the NCAA tournament. During a postseason meeting between the player’s parents and the coaching and training staff, the player’s parents said, associate head coach Andrew Calder blamed their daughter for the team missing the tournament.
If their daughter had been “more committed” and found a way to get healthy enough to play, Calder told them, according to the parents, the Tar Heels would have won a few more games. Their daughter let the team down, Calder said, according to the player’s parents.
Hatchell sat near Calder, nodding her head in agreement, according to the parents. The team medical and training staff, also at the meeting, remained mostly silent, the parents said.
Calder, Hatchell’s longtime deputy who led the team in 2013-14 when she was undergoing treatment for leukemia, did not respond to a request for comment.
Outraged by Calder’s comments, the player’s parents said that they requested a meeting with Cunningham, the athletic director. At that meeting, the parents said, Cunningham expressed concern, apologized and said he would have a discussion with Hatchell and her assistants about their behavior. When the parents suggested the team needed new coaches, however, Cunningham said that was not an outcome he would consider.
If Cunningham disciplined Hatchell and her staff at all after the 2017-18 season for their treatment of injured players, it had no visible impact on their conduct this season, parents said.
Players continued to complain of being pressured, either by Stafford or Hatchell, to play through pain with the aid of cortisone shots.
Watts, the guard who played through an injury that eventually required surgery two seasons before, dealt with similar pressure to play through an injury to her other knee, which Stafford again initially diagnosed as a hyperextension.
After a game late in the season, several players told their parents, Calder yelled in frustration in the locker room that Watts “should be able to play on one leg.” Before an ACC tournament game, Hatchell tried to convince Watts to play, she later told teammates, by telling her that WNBA scouts would be in attendance, and they “would want to see if she can play through pain.”
Watts learned days later she actually had a torn tendon in her knee the entire time. She is among four current players who have filed paperwork seeking to transfer.
“I said the hell with them,” said one father who advised his daughter to refuse any suggestion of taking cortisone and playing through an injury. “The most important thing is your health. You’re 20. You need to be able to walk when you’re 60.”
Discontent with Hatchell among players reached a crescendo this season, according to parents, because of both her treatment of injured players and a bizarre, racially offensive remark she made before a game against Louisville in which she warned her players, if their play didn’t improve, they’d be hung from trees with nooses.
Smith, Hatchell’s attorney, has said the players are mistaken and she never used the word “noose” but actually said, “They’re going to take a rope and string us up, and hang us out to dry.”
Parents noted, however, that Hatchell never denied using the word “noose” until her lawyer was contacted by a reporter this month. In the weeks after the remark, two players asked Hatchell to apologize to the team, parents said.
First, sophomore guard Jocelyn Jones stood up during a film session, explained to Hatchell the comment had been offensive, and asked her to apologize to the team. Hatchell refused. Then, a few days later, Paris Kea, a senior guard, called Hatchell and told her that players, and players’ parents, were deeply offended by the remark.
In response, Kea later told teammates and parents, Hatchell again refused to apologize and expressed anger that the players had informed their parents of the comment. “What are y’all going to do now — come shoot up my house?” Hatchell said to Kea, the guard told her teammates and parents.
Hatchell eventually did apologize for the remark, at a practice, according to parents. At the March 28 meeting between parents and administrators, Cunningham said he had ordered Hatchell to apologize. Cunningham did not say Hatchell had denied using the word “noose,” according to parents in attendance.
According to the news release sent out late Thursday, lawyers hired by North Carolina concluded: “Hatchell is not viewed as a racist, but her comments and subsequent response caused many in the program to believe she lacked awareness and appreciation for the effect her remarks had on those who heard them.”
Hatchell, 67, had coached North Carolina since 1986 and is one of only six coaches at the Division I level to have amassed more than 1,000 victories. She led the Tar Heels to the national championship in 1994 and to the Final Four in 2006 and 2007.
In 2013, she was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and later that year she was diagnosed with leukemia, missing just one season while she underwent treatment.
“The game of basketball has given me so much, but now it is time for me to step away,” Hatchell said in the news release announcing her resignation. “This is an idea I have been contemplating since my cure from leukemia. This year, after defeating Notre Dame, the top-ranked team in the country, and returning to the NCAA Tournament, our program is once again headed in the right direction and ready for new leadership.”
In the meantime, another raft of transfers could be underway. Last week, one of North Carolina’s players seeking to transfer apparently found a new team.
Destinee Walker is a senior guard who missed much of the past two seasons because of injuries. On April 14, friends started sharing photos of Walker smiling, holding a basketball and wearing a new green uniform while standing in the practice facility for Notre Dame.