A week after news broke that the entire University of North Carolina women's basketball coaching staff had been placed on administrative leave come specifics as to grievances involving head coach Sylvia Hatchell.
According to The New York Times, the families of several UNC players complained last week of racially insensitive remarks by Hatchell, detailing their concerns in a meeting that some university officials attended in Chapel Hill while athletic director Bubba Cunningham joined by video conference. The meeting came five days after the Tar Heels suffered a 20-point loss to California in the first round of the NCAA women's tournament, their first tournament appearance in four seasons.
The staff suspensions followed immediately, and the university launched an investigation. Though the measures seemed abrupt to some, reports indicate that Hatchell, who's been at North Carolina for 33 years, had been causing unease on the team for at least the past two seasons.
According to third-hand accounts, Hatchell told team members they played like "old mules" in a game against Georgia Tech, she urged players to "honor" an assistant coach with a tomahawk chop, and the coach once warned the team, "If you guys play this way against Louisville, they’re going to take y'all outside with some nooses."
Hatchell’s lawyer, Wade M. Smith, said in an interview Thursday that his client was aware of the accusations and that his client's words had been misquoted or misconstrued. Smith said the coach had used different words when warning about the coming Louisville game. "She said words like: 'They're going to hang us out to dry. They're going to take a rope and hang us out to dry,' " Smith said.
Smith also said that the coach's suggestion of the tomahawk chop, often seen at Florida State athletic events, was a motivational tool, and he said that Hatchell had often tried to commandeer the traditions of other schools to inspire her team. The lawyer said that Hatchell intended no offense in that episode and that she did not recall making any statements about "old mules," which some players, including one reduced to tears, took as a reference to female slaves.
"There is not a racist bone in her body," Smith said, as reported by ESPN, citing a Washington Post account. "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."
Hatchell is also accused of pressuring team members to play through injuries.
The team's annual banquet was postponed Thursday.