CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The families of several University of North Carolina women’s basketball players complained last week of racially insensitive remarks by Sylvia Hatchell, the school’s Hall of Fame coach who was recently put on leave, according to two people with direct knowledge of the allegations.
Hatchell’s lawyer, Wade Smith, said Thursday that his client was aware of the accusations that were described in detail by one of the people with direct knowledge. He said his client’s words had been misquoted or misconstrued.
The families detailed their concerns in a meeting that some UNC officials attended in Chapel Hill while the athletic director, Bubba Cunningham, joined by video conference from another location, according to the person who described the meeting and spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation.
The meeting included accusations that Hatchell had warned that a loss to Louisville could lead to “nooses,” according to the person, and that the coach had once urged players to do a “tomahawk chop” war cry, a request the women resisted.
Within days of the meeting, the university, which has been in the midst of a reckoning over racism and Confederate history, announced that Hatchell and her three assistants would be put on paid administrative leave while an outside law firm conducted a review to “assess the culture of the women’s basketball program and the experience of our student-athletes.”
The announcement stunned North Carolina and appeared abrupt, but in the discussion with university officials on March 28, players’ relatives said Hatchell’s conduct had caused discomfort during at least two basketball seasons, according to the person.
The families also told university officials that Hatchell had complained that her team played like “old mules” during a game against Georgia Tech — a remark that some took as a reference to female slaves and that led at least one player to cry, according to the person.
In another instance, the families said, according to the person, Hatchell warned that if UNC turned in a middling performance against Louisville, “nooses” would await.
“If you guys play this way against Louisville, they’re going to take y’all outside with some nooses,” Hatchell said, according to the person, who was told of the remark by people who were present.
The reference to “nooses,” the person said, led to two apologies from Hatchell, the second because players thought the first one had lacked sincerity. The players remained frustrated with their coach but elected to wait until the offseason to address their concerns.
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,’” the lawyer said.
Smith said his client “doesn’t have a racist bone in her body.”
Allegations of racism against Hatchell were first reported by The Washington Post.
Five days after UNC’s season ended, with a 20-point loss to California in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, the families voiced their grievances in the meeting.
A North Carolina athletic department spokesman declined to comment. When the university announced the review Monday, it said it was “committed to the well-being of our student-athletes and to ensuring that they have the best experience possible in and outside of competition.”
UNC players either declined to comment or did not respond to messages. It was not clear which of the team’s players were represented when the relatives spoke with Cunningham and the other UNC employees. No members of the coaching staff attended the meeting, which was organized after some players’ relatives held a conference call March 25, the person said.
Smith said Thursday 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.”
The person who described the allegations against Hatchell did not know of any specific accusations against the assistant coaches.
The North Carolina women’s basketball team has had great success under Hatchell, particularly in the 1990s and the 2000s. The Tar Heels won their sole national championship in 1994.
Hatchell, who recently completed her 33rd season at North Carolina, is one of a handful of college basketball coaches with more than 1,000 career wins, and she is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. In her first college coaching job, Hatchell oversaw the junior varsity team at Tennessee in the team’s first season under Pat Summitt, a trailblazing head coach.
But in this decade North Carolina has only twice reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament, both times thanks to four players from its highly regarded recruiting class in 2013. After two seasons, all four players had transferred out of the program. This year, the team finished 18-15.
Smith said Thursday that, despite the allegations, he hoped Hatchell would be able to return to coaching at North Carolina.
“I want her to,” he said. “I believe this is a case in which things are not what they seem.”
On Thursday morning, Hatchell’s executive assistant sent an email to season-ticket holders. The season-end banquet had been postponed.
“Those who have paid for tickets will be refunded,” the email said. “When the banquet is rescheduled, we will contact you with more information.”