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Former University Of Illinois Athletes File $10 Million Lawsuit

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A $10 million federal lawsuit filed this week in Urbana, Ill., charges there was a racially hostile environment on the University of Illinois women's basketball team. A group of former players says their coach and former assistant coach engaged in racial stereotyping and made derogatory racial statements. It holds the university's athletic director responsible for not addressing their claims. The chancellor at U of I said she is disappointed the lawsuit went forward before an external review is completed. All this has been reported by Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune, who joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SHANNON RYAN: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: And give us a sense of the kind of behavior the former basketball players allege in this suit.

RYAN: Right. So there's seven players who have joined this lawsuit - there's an eighth player who may be added as a plaintiff - who have all described a racially hostile environment. They claim that there was racial segregation and practices and that black players would have a separate practice than white players sometimes and that African-American players were punished more severely at times. And even when they traveled on the road, they said that white players were prohibited from rooming with black players.

SIEGEL: To what extent were players voting with their scholarships or with their feet and leaving - going to other universities?

RYAN: Right. So there were five transfers in two years, and for any basketball team, that's a pretty high number. There's a limited number of scholarships in basketball. We're not talking football that has, you know, 80-some scholarships available. This is a pretty small team, so it's uncommon in basketball. It's really uncommon women's basketball to see that number of transfers. And I think it starts to raise some red flags. Like, what's going on in this program that players are so disgruntled that they want to transfer?

SIEGEL: After these complaints were brought, University of Illinois did part ways with the assistant coach for the women's basketball team, who's accused of being central to all of this. Was that a way of addressing the problem?

RYAN: I think in a minor way, and maybe initially, that seemed like the way to handle this to Illinois. Assistant Coach Mike Divilbiss this was described as kind of main culprit by these players, the one who was launching most of the racially derogatory terms and segregating players. But I think this is a bigger problem than an assistant coach.

SIEGEL: Yes, as you - as you've reported, this isn't the only complaint that the Illinois athletic department is dealing with. It's the second lawsuit in a month, and there have been complaints there from the football team. Who else is claiming mistreatment of what sort here?

RYAN: Right. So there was a women's soccer player, Casey Conine, who filed a suit in early June, claiming that the athletic medical staff mishandled a concussion she suffered and that she's had long-lasting effects from that. And maybe - locally, one of the most high profile, at least, was a football player, Simon Cvijanovic, who kind of went on this Twitter rampage with hundreds of tweets, alleging mishandling of injuries by the coaches and by the medical staff. And other players have echoed that concern, too. And not just of the medical mistreatment, but similar harassment - not racially motivated, it doesn't sound like on the football side, by claims of trying to force football players to give up their scholarships and just harass them to leave the team.

SIEGEL: Well, the Chancellor of the University of Illinois says that this, I assume, is being addressed by the external review that she says we should wait for. What review is that? Who's doing it?

RYAN: Right. So there's two law firms, but it's been ongoing for two months now with no revealing of what they've discovered at all or where they are in that point of it. So for Illinois alumni and fans of the program - players - there's this level of anxiety, I think, and just fans feeling like the program's a bit of a mess there.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Shannon Ryan of the Chicago Tribune. Thanks for talking with us.

RYAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.