One day, a University of North Carolina’s women’s basketball team player called her parents, in tears. She told her parents that the coaches had forced her to run sprints even though an injury she had wasn’t healed.
By running the sprints, she reinjured her knee and missed the entire season. After the season, the player’s parents said, the head coach’s top assistant criticized their daughter’s “lack of commitment to the program,” and blamed her for the team missing the NCAA tournament.
This wasn’t a rare occurrence.
Just a few months earlier, during a practice in the fall of 2017, Sylvia Hatchell, the longtime coach, grew visibly frustrated about four injured players sitting out, according to parents of five players who later described the incident.
Three of the players were recovering from knee surgeries, but Hatchell expressed doubt they weren’t able to practice, the parents said. Lashing out in anger, Hatchell screamed at an assistant to take the injured players out of the gym, according to the parents.
“Get them out of my sight. ... They make me sick,” Hatchell said, according to the accounts players gave their parents.
Hatchell resigned Thursday, according to a release the university sent out overnight, 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 the Charlotte-based law firm Parker Poe Adams & Bernstein.
The lawyers hired by the university also concluded, according to a North Carolina athletics spokesman, that the medical staff did not “surrender to pressure to clear players before they were medically ready,” according to a news release sent late Thursday.
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 at what their daughters had told them about their treatment at North Carolina, according to several people at the meeting. The meeting in Chapel Hill, N.C., on March 28 — 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 a phone interview.
Cunningham and the team doctor, Harry Stafford, did not reply to requests to 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 would be available for interviews while the university’s investigation is ongoing.
Hatchell, who was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013 and ranks third on the all-time wins list for women’s coaches, 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 if Hatchell denied any of the allegations, Smith declined to comment further.
In 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 an alarming series of 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, team doctor 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 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 players 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 sustained an injury to her right knee she described after the game as a “minor hyper-extension.” Stafford, the team doctor, 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.
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 they needed to know the difference between being injured and being hurt, and to develop the toughness to play through the latter.
According to the parents, the players wondered if 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 recent knee surgeries.
A few months later, one of those players told her parents 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, as 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, this 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 to comment for this story.
Outraged by Calder’s comments, this 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’d 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 regarding 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 team doctor 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, associate head coach 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.”
The discontent among players with Hatchell 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 team, 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 earlier this month. In the weeks after the remark, two different 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 player’s 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 gonna 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, athletic director 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 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.”
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.