Athletes allege abuse and racism at University of Illinois

CNN spoke to 15 recently departed players on the University of Illinois football and women's basketball teams, and they allege a wide range of misconduct and persistent bullying of athletes by coaches.

Sara Ganim
July 7, 2015

They called it the "dog pound."

It was a separate practice for women's basketball players at the University of Illinois, a majority of them black, where athletes were often allegedly harassed and attacked for things that had nothing to do with basketball.

Like the neighborhoods where they grew up. Or their family life.

It was common, these women told CNN, for an assistant coach to refer to race, and to tell them their "culture" was "poison" or "toxic" to the starting team, which was predominantly white. During road games, the players say they were segregated -- black players separated from the white ones in hotel rooms.

It was so bad, the women said, four players from this past season transferred out of the program at the University of Illinois to other schools.

Nearby, at the university's Memorial Stadium, some members of the football team say they were being harassed too. They recalled two instances where players were physically hit by their coach.

Another player, with Type 1 diabetes, said he was shamed about his weight.

CNN has spoken to 15 recently departed players on the football and women's basketball teams, and they allege a wide range of misconduct and persistent bullying of athletes by coaches.

In addition, players and their families have complained to CNN that they were pressured to play through injuries that go far beyond the typical tough nature of college sports. In one case, a women's basketball player says she was forced to play with an injured toe that ended up being diagnosed as a broken foot. Athletes on the football team also complained that injuries were not taken seriously -- one recalling a time when coaches threatened from the sidelines that he would lose his scholarship as he limped across the field with a knee injury.

Overall, students and parents on both teams say there was a culture of coaches bullying students, with frequent threats to take away their scholarships even though university policy says an athlete can't lose his or her scholarship because of injury or performance in sport.

The university's athletic director, Mike Thomas, acknowledged that the allegations are serious and call into question the culture of the program.

"I was certainly troubled by all the allegations. And those allegations don't match our core values," he said. "Certainly our student athletes need to be in an environment that's safe, that's healthy, that takes their well-being as primary importance."

Women's basketball head coach Matt Bollant and head football coach Tim Beckman declined to comment through a university spokeswoman.

"Look at what the university has to lose," said Lydia Tuck, the mother of one former women's basketball player. "I'm sure they're worried about Title IX funding. I'm sure they hope that we go away."

Racism alleged on women's basketball team

The women's basketball team lost four girls to transfer this year -- all for the same reasons: They allege pervasive emotional abuse.

Eight former players -- seven of them have since sued the university -- talked to CNN, and all said that assistant coach Mike Divilbiss verbally attacked players daily, going after them for personal issues such as learning disabilities, family life or the neighborhood in which they grew up. Divilbiss could not be reached for comment.

"The way he would attack you personally was just horrible," said Jacqui Grant, a former player.

"He came after my character," said former player Alexis Smith, claiming that Divilbiss reprimanded her for moving into the same apartment as two of her teammates who were Bollant's recruits. "He said, 'I feel like you are trying to poison these girls. Why did you even move in with them? You are trying to poison them.' "

"When I tried to defend myself," she added, "he was like, 'Don't try to come after me, I'm the wrong person.' "

Kierra Morris, who left the team after being put on medical disability, said the coaches told her they didn't want her "culture carrying over" to their new recruits.

Another former player, Amarah Coleman said that race was a constant underlying distinction and that Divilbiss often said things like, "you know how black people play."

And another former player, Taylor Tuck, said Divilbiss made a comment about three black players sitting together at a restaurant, saying, "All the black girls are sitting together, that's segregated."

Divilbiss left the university after coming to what administrators call a "mutual understanding" with Bollant, following complaints from some parents, but Bollant remains in his position.

Several former players or their parents told CNN that separate practices were held for the team -- one practice group was majority black, and called "the dog pound," which the players understood to mean they were not in favor. The other practice group was majority white, made up of the starters on the team. In addition, tension between the groups was encouraged, parents wrote in letters of complaint to the university in April.

The players said those in the "dog pound" were called "crabs," which, on a conference call, seven of the players explained like this: "Crabs can never get out of a bucket because they always pull each other down. That is how he explained it in practice. ... They all just climb on top of each other and pull each other down. Like, bums, we are just dragging everybody down."

Coleman said she felt uncomfortable when her team was preparing to play one that was majority African-American, "because coach Divilbiss would single out the blacks on the team to talk about what the other black team was thinking. ... The division of the team during that time made it feel like coach was thinking all blacks think alike."

She continued with more examples: "In practice when a black player would do a certain move, he (Divilbiss) would make a comment stating 'that's the West Side coming out' (referring to Chicago's predominantly black West Side). People should be proud of where they are from, but coach was saying it to make fun of where they are from."

Recruitment by a previous coach

Six of the former players who spoke to CNN said that Divilbiss made several comments that singled out the black players who were primarily recruited by the previous coach, also an African-American, from the white players who were primarily recruited by Bollant.

The players say race wasn't the only factor that led to their mistreatment; they say they believe it also had to do with the fact that they were recruited by a previous coach.

"It was a combination. Like you were African-American, and you weren't recruited by them," former player Nia Oden said.

In their lawsuit, and in interviews with CNN, the women said they were divided by race when sharing hotel rooms during road games.

After the women's parents complained in April, the school did an internal investigation through its diversity council, and "preliminary findings" found no wrongdoing when it came to the allegations of racism and bullying.

That led to an outcry from former players and their parents. And in response to them and to questions from CNN, the university announced five days later that it had hired a Chicago law firm to "finalize the preliminary review" that found no wrongdoing.

"There's no rush to judgment. You know we will go through an investigative process, and when that process is complete we will look at the next steps," said Thomas, the university's athletic director. "... I think you and I could be watching practice, and you could hear a coach say something to two different kids, those two different kids might take it a different way and you and I might take it a different way. So I think for coaches, not just at the University of Illinois but across the country, these are the kind of things that we're going to be paying attention to moving forward."

The university has also hired a separate law firm to look at the claims of medical mistreatment on different teams. Allegations now include a lawsuit filed on June 8 by a former Illinois soccer player who says her concussion was mishandled.

The suit says the university failed to follow its own protocol for handling concussions when defender Casey Conine was injured, returning her to play before doctors cleared her.

'A culture of mental and emotional abuse'

Divilbiss' departure comes after three sets of parents wrote letters to the administration in late April.

In one of the letters, Tuck, the former player, and her husband wrote that bullying and racial tension on the team are systematic and "epidemic," and they accused Bollant, the women's basketball head coach, of creating "a culture of mental and emotional abuse."

The family of another player, Taylor Gleason, wrote that she was "bullied and demoralized daily" and was forced to play with an injured toe, which later was diagnosed as a broken foot.

"She's just happy to be at a new school and starting over," her father told CNN later. "Just happy to be out of there."

Many of the players who left are now playing at other schools, and they said they are having much different and much better experiences.

Tom Grusecki, the stepfather of one former player, wrote in a letter to the school that Divilbiss belittled his daughter in front of the team because of her estranged relationship with her father and because of her dyslexia.

More than one player said they became so depressed, "it hurt to get out of bed."

"The things they said were so personal, attacking, that they would single you out and you felt you were alone," Gleason said.

Sarah Livingston, who transferred after the 2014 season, said the final straw, for her, was when another coach just turned away after one of Divilbiss' rants.

"That kind of embodied the whole attitude of everyone that wasn't Divilbiss," she said.

"He wouldn't stand up for us. He wouldn't tell coach D to stop. Coach Bollant would be quiet and continue with practice," Smith said.

Thomas, the university's athletic director, said the university is reevaluating its practice of allowing head coaches to do most of the vetting of assistants they bring in.

The university responded by saying that it's disappointed the lawsuit came before the findings of its internal review and that Thomas has asked staff to closely monitor team activities in the meantime.

"I cannot stress enough that anytime we learn that a student feels the experience at Illinois isn't 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," Chancellor Phyllis Wise said in a statement.

Many players and parents told CNN they won't be happy as long as Bollant remains. One said, "When you are the head coach, you should stop that when you see it. If you can't stop bullying amongst your own staff, that is a problem."

Tuck, whose daughter graduated from the program, said the behavior of the coaching staff changed drastically when Bollant was hired after her daughter's freshman year. And, she said, the attitude of the coaches is drastically different from those of her other daughter, who plays under much better circumstances at Connecticut.

Football allegations

The alleged bullying at the University of Illinois wasn't isolated to one program or one coach. There are also allegations of wrongdoing in the football program.

Recently graduated football player Kenny Knight and three other former players who spoke to CNN say they witnessed two incidents in the past two years in which head coach Tim Beckman was physically rough with players. One player is still on the team and declined through his teammates to talk about what happened. But witnesses said that at the start of one practice, the player ran onto the field with his helmet unbuckled, and Beckman ran over to him, grabbed his face mask and jerked his head back and forth, yelling at him.

In 2013, Knight says, a similar thing happened to him. He says Beckman grabbed and tackled him from behind, throwing him to the ground during a practice. Two former teammates who witnessed the incident backed him up.

They say it happened after Knight was hit "dirty" by another player with his head down -- something that's prohibited in college football.

"I immediately got in his face about it," Knight said of the player who hit him. "Before I had the chance to lift a finger, in a matter of seconds, I was grabbed by my shoulder and thrown on the ground. I was livid, I thought I was going to look up and see one of my teammates had thrown me down, but I looked up and saw Tim Beckman staring in my face. I was shocked. I don't think I uttered a word."

The university says Beckman thought he was breaking up a fight; Knight and several other players who witnessed the incident said there was no physical fight happening when Beckman hit Knight. Knight's father said the night of the incident, Beckman told him, "Kenny accidentally fell backwards over him."

Knight and his father tried to look at the practice tape to review what happened.

"There was 35 seconds of blank screen. I could see the dial was moving to let me know that it was still playing, but there was no film to be seen. It wouldn't play for me or for anybody else," he said. Two other players said they, separately, also looked for the incident on the practice tape, but it was not there.

The university says the "dead time" between plays is not normally recorded during practice. Knight says Beckman called him the day after speaking to his father to apologize, but Knight never reported the incident to anyone at the university out of fear that he'd lose his scholarship. "He should never be allowed to coach again," Knight said.

The National College Players Association is also involved, offering guidance to the players who are coming out publicly and demanding that Illinois fire all coaches involved in physical and verbal abuse.

"You can be tough as hell without abusing players," said NCPA president Ramogi Huma. "Everywhere, coaches yell and cuss. That happens everywhere. What doesn't happen everywhere is racism," Huma said, referring to the women's basketball team. "What doesn't happen everywhere is forcing players to play through serious injuries. It's not regular for coaches to put their hands on players -- that's not breaking up a fight, that's starting a fight," he said, referring to the alleged incident with the football team.

"At the end of the day, it's about the student-athlete experience, and part of that is their safety, well-being and health," said Thomas, the university's athletic director. "And abuse is not acceptable. We hold our staff to a high standard. That line of what's acceptable and not acceptable is really under the microscope right now."

Brothers allege bullying on football team

Knight and others are speaking up after fellow former teammate Simon Cvijanovic went on Twitter in May to say that he'd been pressured by Beckman to go back on the field too soon after knee surgery and to play through a shoulder injury.

Instead, he quit the team, started the hashtag #BanBeckman and inspired several more teammates to speak up, including Knight, and former player Nick North, who told CNN that he, too, was pushed back into practice after hurting a knee ligament.

"They kept saying, 'You need to go back out there,' even though they knew I wasn't 100 percent," North said. "I'd literally be limping while running, and you could see it. ... They were like, if you can't do this, you're going to have to leave. You can't play here. We're going to take your scholarship." North graduated in December.

All the players CNN spoke to said that many more stories like these exist, but players are afraid to speak up because they're still on the team.

"WHEN @coachbeckman is fired you'll hear plenty more stories but right now he's dangling scholarships like a carrot," Cvijanovic tweeted.

He later said, "They act like our bodies are just disposable and we should feel that way also or else we're not team players. ... There's nowhere to turn to so Twitter is where I went."

He says Beckman threatened to say bad things about his character to National Football League scouts unless he returned to the field after injuries. Once, he says, he was pressured to return two weeks after an ankle injury that his doctor told him needed a six- to eight-week recovery.

His younger brother, who also played football but quit the team, struggled as well. A Type 1 diabetic, Peter Cvijanovic had trouble gaining weight and says he was bullied daily by coaches for it.

"They made him step on the scale three to five times a day," Simon Cvijanovic said. "Every time he walked by, coach would make him step up on the scale, and Peter would hang his head and get up on the scale. We were both throwing up in the morning from anxiety -- me from my knee and him because of the weight issue."

The university says it cannot discuss the Cvijanovic brothers' or Nick North's allegations in detail because of privacy laws.

Thomas said he had not been aware of many of the allegations until being asked for comment by CNN, adding that he would ask the firm investigating to expand its scope.

"Anytime you receive these types of allegations, it brings you great concern," he said, later adding, "Here at the University of Illinois, the health and well-being of our student athletes is our number one priority. ... Anytime anything rises to a level of a student athlete being mistreated, I would address it immediately."