UNC plans to keep women’s basketball investigation private

Two weeks after the resignation of Sylvia Hatchell, UNC-Chapel Hill has no plans to make public an investigative report into its women’s basketball program, despite a provision in state law that would allow the university to do so.

Hatchell, a Hall of Fame coach who spent 33 seasons at UNC, resigned on April 18 after facing allegations of player mistreatment and making racially insensitive comments. Amid those allegations, UNC hired Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein, a Charlotte law firm, to investigate Hatchell’s program.

While the firm produced a written investigative report, according to a school spokesman, the university has declined to release the document, citing state law that protects the personnel records of current and former state employees. UNC has argued that the Parker Poe report constitutes a personnel record.

“The report is protected under the North Carolina Human Resources Act,” Joel Curran, the vice chancellor of university communications, wrote in an email on April 29.

Curran’s email came after The News & Observer sought a more detailed explanation about why the university would not release the Parker Poe report. In an April 22 response to a public-records request for the report, UNC wrote that there were “no responsive public records.”

While UNC contends that the Parker Poe report is protected by the Human Resources Act, that law actually allows for the release of such information when a department head decides it would be “essential to maintaining the integrity” of a department.

Asked via email why the university would not release the report in the spirit of maintaining integrity, Curran did not explain the decision. “As I’ve said before,” he wrote in an email, “it’s a personnel-protected document. I have nothing more to add.”

Bubba Cunningham, the UNC athletic director, also declined to explain the university’s rationale. According to the law, Cunningham, as a department head, has the authority to make the document public. He repeated the university’s conclusion that personnel privacy laws protect the report.

“We’ve already answered that question numerous times,” he said during a recent interview. “We’re not making that report public.”

Celebrating with her team, the University of North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell gets her 1,000 career win in the game over Grambling State University on Dec. 19, 2017. N Janet Blackmon Morgan

UNC announced on April 1 that it had placed Hatchell and three assistant coaches on paid leave amid “issues raised by student-athletes and others.” At the same time, the university announced that it commissioned Parker Poe to “assess the culture of the women’s basketball program and the experience of our student-athletes.”

Days later, The Washington Post reported that several parents of current players had shared concerns with Cunningham over how Hatchell had treated their daughters. Those parents, according to the Post, said their daughters were pressured to play through injuries. Some questioned how injuries had been diagnosed. They also relayed accounts of Hatchell making a racially insensitive comment after a game.

One parent, who spoke to The N&O last month on the condition of anonymity, said his daughter’s injury had been misdiagnosed and that she eventually learned, after pursuing a second opinion, that her injury was more severe than she’d been led to believe. The parent said Hatchell and her staff encouraged the player to ignore her pain and play through her injury.

“Things like, ‘Oh, the WNBA wants to see you playing,’” the parent 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.”

UNC announced Hatchell’s resignation on April 18, three minutes before midnight. The news release included a brief summation of Parker Poe’s conclusions: that “Hatchell made comments that were racially insensitive;” that “players and medical staff expressed frustration with perceived and undue influence from Hatchell regarding medical issues and pressure to play;” and that “there has been a breakdown of connectivity between the players and Hatchell.”

The university’s statement noted that Parker Poe interviewed 28 people, including current players and “personnel connected to the UNC women’s basketball program.” Beyond that, the summation of the findings provided no details about how the firm reached them.

Since then, the report has remained private, even to parties directly mentioned or affected by it. Reached by phone on Thursday, a parent of a current player said he had not seen the report. Wade Smith, the Raleigh attorney who has represented Hatchell, said that he has not received a copy of the report, either. Smith said neither he nor Hatchell planned to pursue a copy of the document.

“We kind of already have an idea of what’s in the report,” Smith said.

Brooks Fuller, the executive director of the N.C. Open Government Coalition, said in an interview that under state law, “the personnel exemptions are extraordinarily broad, and they give a lot of power to public bodies and government agencies to withhold records that are related to an employees’ personnel file.”

“This can be very frustrating for public advocates in this way because a lot of what goes on behind closed doors during these investigations, sometimes these fruits of those investigations don’t amount to a public record,” Fuller said. “And that can obscure a lot of what’s going in the halls of government from the citizens.”

Amanda Martin, legal counsel for the N.C. Press Association, said in an interview that UNC could release the Parker Poe report with the personnel information redacted.

“The personnel law only cover and exempt employee-specific information,” said Martin, who also represents The N&O and Durham Herald-Sun. “For instance, if the report contained statements about general morale on the basketball team, I don’t think that’s personnel information.”

Martin added that “it is not illegal” for UNC to release the report.

“They do have to undertake some steps before releasing it,” she said. “What they have to do is make a determination that releasing it is in the public interest due to some issues that have arisen, and they write a memo and put it in a personnel file explaining that.”

Jason Tyson, the director of media relations for the UNC System, wrote in an email on Thursday that the integrity provision in the human resources act “does not alter the confidential nature of the records ... or the university’s obligation to protect those records.”

“While that statute gives discretion to certain University officials to decide whether to release otherwise confidential personnel information when they determine that the limited circumstances described in the statute are present,” Tyson wrote, “the University is not required to produce such records simply because they have been requested.”

UNC earlier this week introduced Hatchell’s successor: Courtney Banghart, who previously was the women’s basketball coach at Princeton.

At an introductory gathering with reporters, Banghart spoke of her desire to rebuild relationships with players.

“What’s important is that I meet that team, and I wrap my arms around them,” she said.

The degree of the rebuilding task in front of her, though, is unclear — in part because the Parker Poe report remains private. During an interview earlier this week, Cunningham said he was “not really interested in answering any questions” about how the women’s basketball program had reached such a crisis point under Hatchell.

“I responded to your questions which is the university has already made a statement about this and we hired a new coach,” Cunningham said. “ And I want to keep all of our comments about the future of our program.”

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