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Dismissed Grambling State volleyball players still uncertain about their future

While several Tigers players continue to speak out after the entire roster was cut, Grambling officials start formal review of allegations

In the month since new Grambling State coach Chelsey Lucas made the unusual decision to cancel scholarships for the entire women’s volleyball team, the athletes have described a process they say was unfair from the day Lucas was hired and left them scrambling to find a way to pay their tuition without adequate warning or any help from the school.

Both Lucas and the university have declined to comment on several accusations of intimidation, retaliation and unfairness made by the players and their parents. The school’s public statements have not acknowledged any wrongdoing or hardship it has created, and neither the new coach nor the athletic director would answer questions about what precipitated such a rare purge of a college team. However, on Thursday, the university released this statement on its Twitter account:

In the wake of the scandal, former players started a Change.org petition to have the scholarships reinstated and some are discussing an appeal to the NCAA. So far, the petition has reached 2,737 of its goal of 5,000 signatures. According to the NCAA bylaw regarding hearings for appeal opportunities, if an athlete’s scholarship is not renewed, “The institution shall have established reasonable procedures for promptly hearing such a request and shall not delegate the responsibility for conducting the hearing to the university’s athletics department or its faculty athletics committee.”

Among those whose scholarships were not renewed was sophomore defensive specialist Jada Taylor, who was named the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Preseason Libero/Defensive Player of the Year in August 2021. Taylor finished the season ranked second in the SWAC in digs with 457. In March 2021, she received conference player of the year honors for the 2020 season.

Grambling announced Feb. 14 that it had hired Lucas, the coach at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, to replace Demetria Keys-Johnson, who had stepped down in December. Less than two months into her new role, Lucas met individually with all 12 returning scholarship players and told them that she would not be renewing their scholarships for the fall 2022 season. She told the remaining seven players, all walk-ons, that she would not be renewing their spots on the team.

The decision left the entire team stunned and many of their parents outraged.

“She [Lucas] just was, like, I understand you were on scholarship. I’m looking for a new dynamic of the team and you don’t fit the dynamic,” junior middle blocker Semira Fields told Andscape. “I couldn’t even say [anything] back to her because I was so shocked. Like, I had done everything she asked, but when she told me, I couldn’t even listen to her anymore. I sat back and thought, ‘Wow, like, I really have to find a way to pay for school.’ I have to tell my parents that I’m no longer on scholarship. My lifestyle is gonna change after a meeting [with Coach] that lasted maybe 2½ minutes. Grambling’s motto is, ‘A place where everybody’s somebody,’ Right now, I feel like a nobody.”

Junior setter Kalee Cadwell felt the same way. “When she told me that she wasn’t going to renew my scholarship, I immediately thought, ‘Wow, do I leave? Do I stay? Do I want to play?’ I really did not know what to do. For me personally, I’m just kind of frustrated because I was very confident that Grambling was going to be where I graduated, my alma mater. This is the last thing I was expecting. Now, the thought of even staying at Grambling another year, another semester, another day, actually makes me sick to my stomach.”

For the past month, the website for Grambling’s volleyball team has displayed a 404 Error message under the roster section; no members of the team are listed, no pictures of the team are featured in the site’s photo gallery since 2016. Although Lucas opted not to renew any scholarships, four former scholarship players confirmed that they were offered the opportunity to stay on the team as walk-ons. All four turned the offer down. So far, Lucas has signed three junior college transfers from Dodge City Community College in Kansas.

“[Lucas] proceeded to ask me to still play for the team. That’s very confusing and baffling to me. Like, how do you want me to play for you, but you took my scholarship,” Cadwell said. “I can’t sacrifice my body, my time and also have a job outside of athletics trying to pay for school. I cannot play for free [while] being a senior next semester. It’s hard for my credits to transfer, so I’m gonna have to pay for school.”

Added junior right-side hitter and Jacksonville, Florida, native Saige Rivers, “[Lucas told me] ‘I want you to play for me, I still want you to be on this team, but I’m not going to renew your scholarship.’ I was like, ‘I’m out of state. So, that’s a lot of money for me to stay here without my scholarship, and you’re telling me you want me to stay, but you don’t want to pay me to stay here.’ And then she was telling me that once I get better, I can try and get a scholarship. I graduate this fall. I have three credits left. So that made no sense.

“And for most of us, you’re not even giving us enough time to even really get into the [transfer] portal. The season usually starts in August. Schools already have full teams usually by fall, so [Lucas] put a lot of us between a rock and a hard place. Luckily for me, I can graduate early, but that’s not for everyone.”

Although Lucas’ decision was controversial, NCAA schools are not required to renew athletic scholarships.

Grambling State volleyball coach Chelsey Lucas was the coach for three seasons at Alcorn State from 2016 to 2018 before taking over at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff in 2019.

Grambling State University(left)/Cameo Stokes-Arkansas Pine-Bluff

In a statement released to the media on April 7 through Grambling’s athletic department, Lucas said, “I met with my team, each student-athlete, individually to discuss my plans moving forward with the Grambling State University volleyball program. My decision was to not bring back some of the current student-athletes on the team. While student-athletes are granted athletic scholarships, a scholarship is not guaranteed and not binding, per NCAA rules and regulations.”

While college athletic departments have a history of cutting sports programs when financial troubles arise, dismissing an entire team based on performance is rare. 

Still, Lucas isn’t the first coach from a historically Black school to make drastic cuts to a team’s roster. In March 2018, North Carolina Central women’s basketball coach Trisha Stafford-Odom revoked the scholarships of 10 players at the conclusion of her first season as coach, including three she had recruited.

The Grambling team finished the 2021 season 11-17 overall (8-8 in conference play and 5-6 at home) under Keys-Johnson, a former assistant coach at Grambling from 2004 to 2009 who took over the program in 2010. Her career record at Grambling was 95-249, 45-104 in the SWAC. She stepped down in December to take another position at the university.

Lucas, a former libero on Grambling’s volleyball team and the 2006 SWAC Defensive Player of the Year, was hired after a three-year stint at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. The Golden Lions finished the season 18-16, 13-3 in conference play and 9-0 at home.

Grambling’s athletic director Trayvean Scott has stood by Lucas’ decision to make drastic changes on the team, and many Grambling alumni have also supported the coach’s decisions.

“Just as the transfer portal empowers student-athletes, our coaches are also empowered to make the decisions they deem necessary to advance their programs,” Scott said in a statement in April.

On March 25, Lucas named LaMonica Peacock as the team’s assistant coach/recruiting coordinator, after serving in the same capacity at Arkansas-Pine Bluff under Lucas.

Before Lucas’ decision not to renew any scholarships, many players talked about the lack of communication and professionalism from the coaching staff. They said personal meetings with Lucas were rescheduled numerous times, while some were never granted. For one practice, players allege that the coaches gave them only 30 minutes’ notice before they had to report to the gym. They also say Lucas didn’t make an effort to learn their names, often referring to players by the wrong name.

Some players speculated that Lucas’ attitude was related to disrespect expressed by Grambling during her last season at Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

From left to right: Former Grambling volleyball players Semira Fields, Sheila Borders and Kalee Cadwell were told in April that their scholarships would not be renewed.

Tashia Bryce

During the initial team meeting after she was hired in February, several players told Andscape that Lucas told them, “I bet you didn’t expect to see me again. I bet y’all will think twice about who y’all call a b—-,” a reference to Grambling’s “GSU, I Thought You Knew” chant that the Tigers players and student section directed at Arkansas-Pine Bluff during a match.

“[Last season] when we played them at home and we beat them, our school has like this chant, but at the end of the chant you say, like, the B-word,” said senior setter Sheila Borders. “I guess she thought I was calling them B-words, but, like, the whole school says it. They say it at basketball games and football games. It’s nothing personal.”

Lucas also informed the players during their initial meeting that they would be required to live on campus. At Grambling, like many universities, priority for on-campus housing is given to underclassmen, so it’s common practice for upperclassmen to live off campus. Most of the volleyball team signed leases to live off campus during the fall and renewed their leases before Lucas’ hiring.

“Most of us live off campus because we had to move off campus and because the dorms were overfilled,” Rivers said. “When we were in the meeting, she was saying that we all have to move on campus and pretty much that we all needed to break our lease. I can’t break my lease. She was like, ‘Well, then, y’all don’t have to be on the team if y’all aren’t going to abide by these rules.’ ”

After that meeting, the players said, they only had three practices with Lucas, which consisted of little to no skill work and a lot of running without breaks. If players complained, Lucas told them to quit, which two players would eventually do. (A member of Grambling’s athletic department who asked not to be named denied these allegations.)

“It was just a lot of punishment, punishment, punishment, trying to break us down. It seemed like her goal was to get us to quit,” said Borders. “With her rules and the way she talked to us, the way she treated us, the way they acted around us. Her goal was to get us to quit the team on our own so that it would look better.”

Added Rivers, “[We were] actually trying, because there’s no point in not trying. It’s a new coach. We all understand that. We’ve all had coaches before and this isn’t our first time playing volleyball. But for you to degrade us when we are trying, and then keep telling us, ‘Well, if you don’t want to [practice], there’s the door.’ ”

Rivers’ mother, Kristy Hardy, also believes that the situation was more about personal feelings than it was about volleyball.

“I’m not saying that Coach Lucas couldn’t cut the whole team,” Hardy said. “Not at all. Yes, it’s unprecedented. I’ve never seen it happen in volleyball. But you could have done that in February when you got there. Because you already knew that you weren’t going to keep them. But instead, you chose to retaliate against them because you don’t like them. You waited around to April to cut them to get back at them.”

Andscape made several telephone and email requests to interview Lucas, Scott and university president Rick Gallot for this story. None were made available.

This is not the first scandal that Grambling’s athletic program has faced this year. On Feb. 24, newly hired Tigers football coach and former NFL head coach Hue Jackson set off a firestorm when he hired former Baylor football coach Art Briles as offensive coordinator. Briles was fired by Baylor in 2016 for his handling of sexual assault allegations made against players on his team.

At the time of Briles’ hiring, Scott told ESPN’s Pete Thamel, “I know a lot of things are said and done. We felt it [was appropriate] to give him a chance to really redeem himself after understanding where the facts lie. … I think the guy just wants to coach and lead men.”

The controversy proved to be too much for Briles, who turned in his resignation four days later. 

Now, several volleyball players and their parents say Scott is once again siding with a coach over the well-being of students.

“[Scott] has not said anything,” said Maurice Harris, whose daughter, Maurisa, was a junior defensive specialist for Grambling before being cut. “He’s said nothing but that he’s standing with the coach. All of this controversy, and this man has the gall to get up there and say that. That’s what this man has had the gall to say, after we have trusted him to watch out for the best interest of our girls. … He didn’t say we’re gonna help them, and we’ll find this or we’ll look into scholarships. None of that. Nothing. Just, ‘I’m standing with the coach.’ ”

Added Hardy, “We’re not rich. Some of us do well, but we’re not rich. Anybody paying for college out of their own pocket, that’s going to be a hard job. She didn’t respect them enough as young Black women to try to remedy that. I just think it’s poor professionalism and I’m not really sure how the athletic department can condone that behavior. I’m not sure how the communications director for the athletic department, who’s the face for PR, could say, ‘Out with the old, in with the new’ like that.”

So far, a few players have found new homes. Rivers, who earned all-tournament honors at the Stephen F. Austin tournament this season, is only three classes shy of graduation. She plans to graduate this summer before attending graduate school at Kennesaw State. Once there, she hopes to become a walk-on after she’s recovered from a torn Achilles she suffered last season.

“I got hurt playing for Grambling State,” Rivers said. “I have an extra year of eligibility because I got hurt. But the fact that she [Lucas] took my whole senior year away … I’m still trying to get used to that. I worked hard for where I am. And I gave my all for this team and this sport. So for her to say that she didn’t know how I played, so she wasn’t keeping my scholarship, makes no sense.”

Other players are still trying to figure out their next move. Some underclassmen are contemplating finishing out their college careers as regular students, because they fear they will lose credits if they transfer. Some have had conversations with coaches at other schools, but have been told that they don’t have any scholarships available.

“Had she [Lucas] told us early on, I could have moved on and started planning to attend another school. But I’m definitely in the process of talking to other schools,” Cadwell said. “But it’s still kind of hard to plan for something else, and to attend another school when I don’t even have everything figured out and handled here yet.”

Mia Berry is the senior HBCU writer for Andscape and covers everything from sports to student-led protests. She is a Detroit native (What up Doe!), long-suffering Detroit sports fan and Notre Dame alumna who randomly shouts, "Go Irish."