Sports

Parents, players offer contrasting accounts of UNC women’s basketball coach Hatchell

While North Carolina women’s basketball coach Sylvia Hatchell and her staff remain suspended amid an internal investigation into their conduct at UNC-Chapel Hill, parents of former players in recent days have offered a mixed review of their daughters’ experience under Hatchell in the program.

Reached by phone on Friday and Saturday, several parents of players who either transferred or dealt with injuries during their time at UNC said they had no problem with the way Hatchell and her staff treated their daughters. Several others either didn’t return messages or refused comment.

One parent of a former player told The News & Observer via text message about a complaint he made against Hatchell in 2016.

And another, a parent of a current player, said in a phone interview on Friday that Hatchell, 67, is “just from another era,” and that “I don’t think that she’s kept up” with advancements in medical treatment of sports injuries. The parents did not want to be identified, fearing retribution against their daughters.

Contacted on Friday night, the parent of the former player said he had written a letter of complaint to Hatchell and Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, detailing “experiences over (five) years that were not acceptable to us.”

“We knew that this letter would probably end (his daughter’s) pro basketball hopes,” the parent told The News & Observer, “but we hoped that it would help make sure that the next girls” did not have a negative experience on the team.

He declined to share a copy of the letter and he refused to detail its contents..

“We just hope it makes UNC make the right decisions to change the way things are done,” he told The N&O.

The parent did not answer a subsequent phone call seeking additional comment, and wrote that “any comments will have to come from” his daughter. Efforts by The News & Observer to reach that former player by phone were not successful.

In response to a text message seeking comment about the 2016 letter, Cunningham in a text message on Sunday to The N&O wrote that “we are not going to comment about women’s basketball until the end of the current review.”

“But it is important to know that at the end of each year we review all programs to discuss the previous year and how we can improve for the upcoming year,” he wrote.

‘Thorough and prompt’

UNC announced early last week it had placed Hatchell and her staff on paid administrative leave amid “issues raised by student-athletes and others.” The university has hired Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, a Charlotte-based law firm, to conduct an internal investigation. In a statement, UNC wrote that “the review will be thorough and prompt.”

Later in the week, The Washington Post, citing interviews with six parents of current players, reported that a group of parents shared their concerns during a recent meeting with UNC administrators. The parents, according to the Post, alleged that some players received improper medical care and also alleged that Hatchell had made racially insensitive comments in front of the team.

One parent of a current player, reached by The News & Observer on Friday, detailed those complaints, though he said he did not attend the meeting between parents and administrators. The parent said that several team parents, including himself, shared concerns about the quality of medical treatment that players received.

The parent said his daughter faced pressure to play through injuries, and that the team’s staff downplayed the severity of an injury she suffered. His daughter, the parent said, was told that “if she could deal with the pain, she can play.” After weeks passed and her pain didn’t subside, “they’re still egging her on to play, egging her on to play,” the father said.

“Things like, ‘Oh, the WNBA wants to see you playing,’” he said. “Wants to see if you can play in pain. You know, like, ‘You’ve just got to man up’ – not those words, but basically you’ve got to toughen it out and play.”

The parent said he eventually sought a second opinion on his daughter’s injury. When the player requested her medical records from UNC, her father said, she learned that her injury was more serious than she was led to believe.

“Here’s what bothered me,” the father said. “The terminology changed after we asked for a second opinion.”

The parent said that the team’s physician, Dr. Harry Stafford, was not aware that the coaching staff was pressuring the player to play through her injury. According to the father, “Stafford claimed that he told Hatchell that (the player) could not play no more this year.” The disconnect between Stafford and the coaching staff, the father said, is central to parents’ complaints about improper treatment.

Hatchell’s attorney, Wade Smith, told The N&O last week that Hatchell does not “play an athlete who is not cleared to play by the medical people.” Efforts to reach Stafford by phone and in person were not successful on Friday and Sunday.

Beth Keith, associate vice chancellor of communications at UNC, said Friday afternoon that Stafford is still employed as a UNC faculty member. She said she could not confirm whether he is still the main team doctor for the women’s basketball program because, she claimed, that information is protected by personnel rules. (Under N.C. law, a state employee’s current position and title are public record.)

Two other parents of current players who have dealt with injuries declined comment. Reached by phone on Friday, both parents said they wanted to let The Washington Post story speak for itself. Several current and former players either declined comment or didn’t return phone calls or social media messages that sought perspective about their experience at UNC.

Questions about racial comments

In addition to the complaints surrounding medical care, Hatchell faces allegations of making racially insensitive comments in front of her players. The Post, citing unnamed parents of current players, reported that Hatchell, displeased after a game, made a reference to a lynching and “nooses.”

“Yes, she did say it,” said the parent who spoke by phone with The News & Observer on Friday morning. “But I think what she was trying to convey to the kids — this was going to be an intense, tough atmosphere. ... if you don’t come ready to play, they’re going to be up there with nooses, and they’re going to throw them around trees and hang you.

“And you can imagine how offended the kids were from that.”

Hatchell’s attorney, Wade Smith, denied that Hatchell used the word “noose.” Two of Hatchell’s former players, both African American, supported their former coach in interviews over the weekend, and said they’ve never heard Hatchell make racially insensitive comments.

One of those players, Rashanda McCants, criticized UNC amid revelations in 2014 of the university’s academic and athletic scandal related to suspect African Studies classes. McCants, though, defended Hatchell in a lengthy post on Instagram on Friday night. In a phone interview the next day with The News & Observer, McCants said the “nooses” reference is “not (Hatchell’s) character.”

“I don’t believe it, not from my experience with Sylvia and her coaching staff,” said McCants, who played at UNC from 2005 through 2009. “For the four years, and the years after I graduated there has never ever been anything even close to that that I’ve ever experienced.

“She doesn’t even like for you to use profanity.”

Another former player, Ivory Latta, said in a phone interview on Saturday that she “didn’t see any of the racial things that’s been said when I played there for her.”

“She’s an amazing person,” said Latta, who played at UNC from 2003 through 2007, and then served as an assistant coach under Hatchell from 2013-15. “She changed my life. Went to college as a little girl, came out as a grown woman.

“She taught me a lot of principles. Not only about basketball but about life, period. Especially with me being the smallest player. She always told me to never back down from anyone.”

The parent of the current player said on Friday that he and other parents had not been given an indication of how long the investigation into Hatchell and her staff might last. According to her contract, Hatchell is due to receive a retention bonus of $140,000 on April 16. A North Carolina spokesperson confirmed that bonus would be paid if the review is ongoing.

Contributing to this article were Jonathan Alexander, Martha Quillin and Virginia Bridges.

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