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Former NCCU women’s basketball players call foul

Players whose scholarships were not renewed detail verbal and mental abuse from coaches

Alyssa Thompson faced a tough decision last July. She had committed to attend Florida A&M, where she expected to play basketball, but she was intrigued by a last-minute pitch from Trisha Stafford-Odom, the new coach at North Carolina Central University.

“She told me this is going to be the best place for me, and that she would help me develop as a player over four years,” said Thompson, a 6-foot-1 freshman. “I came to visit, and I felt they were going to help me develop into the player that I wanted to be.”

Thompson started 10 games for the Eagles, who finished the 2017-18 rebuilding season with a 9-21 record. When the team scheduled exit interviews days after the March 6 loss to South Carolina State in the opening round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) tournament, Thompson expected to hear about the next stage of her development.

“She asked me to evaluate my season, and I did,” Thompson said. “She told me she was bringing in more advanced and mature girls who would be a new level of competition.

“Then she told me she wasn’t renewing my scholarship.”

Thompson wasn’t alone.

By the end of the day, nine of her teammates — a senior with a year of eligibility remaining but who didn’t plan to return, four other juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen were also told they would not have their scholarships renewed.

New coaches often come in looking to make their own imprint on a program. Often, those changes mean not renewing the scholarships of players recruited by the previous coach.

Of the players who were told March 8 that their scholarships were not being renewed, three of them were recruited by Stafford-Odom. Thompson was recruited out of Charlotte; the other two women, Sami Oliver-Alexander and Darria Hewitt, were recruited from California, where Stafford-Odom had previously coached at Concordia University in Irvine for three years.

What North Carolina Central did with its players was within the rules — the days of a full four-year scholarship are over. While schools can provide multiyear deals, many offer one-year scholarships that are renewable each year.

Several North Carolina Central players said a December letter sent to parents from Stafford-Odom stated that some scholarships would not be renewed.

Yet, 10 players essentially being cut in one day — that number is shocking.

The Undefeated made several telephone and email requests to interview Stafford-Odom and North Carolina Central athletic director Ingrid Wicker McCree for this story, but neither was made available to comment. Instead, the school’s senior associate athletics director for strategic communications, Kyle Serba, emailed this statement from the university:

All student-athlete scholarship recipients at North Carolina Central University (NCCU) receive one-year scholarships. This practice is consistent with the practice that is followed by other FCS institutions. Consistent with NCAA regulations, 10 members of the NCCU’s women’s basketball team received notification that their one-year scholarships would not be renewed for the 2018-19 academic year. For more information regarding the notification and appeal process, please see the statement released by the university on March 15, 2018.

Though the student-athletes notified will no longer be members of the women’s basketball team, North Carolina Central University is committed to their success. Of the 10 student-athletes, three will graduate in May 2018 and two will graduate in summer 2018, all from NCCU; one student-athlete is a junior; two are sophomores and two are freshmen. Several departments on campus, including the Department of Athletics and the Department of Enrollment Management, continue to work diligently to assist these student-athletes in their efforts to transfer to other schools to continue their athletic pursuits and/or to stay enrolled at NCCU and complete their academic degree programs.

In the aftermath of the mass dismissals, some of the players are speaking out about a season in which they describe players being pitted against each other and coaches delivering heavy doses of verbal and mental abuse.

“I felt my development this season was stagnated,” said Deja McCain, the junior captain who was also told her scholarship wasn’t being renewed. “I was verbally abused, and the entire team was told that we weren’t going to make it in life. Our practices were a hostile environment.”

Thompson, who has played for tough coaches in the past, agreed.

“It’s one thing to be a mean coach, and it’s another thing to be disrespectful,” Thompson said. “They called me worthless, and they told me I was weak.

“This was the worst year of my life.”

Once upon a time, the women’s team at NCCU was one of the premier Division II programs in the country. Besides winning the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) title during the 2006-07 season, the team was a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

That team finished the 2006-07 season with a 26-6 record.

And the Eagles haven’t had a winning season since.

The 2007-08 season was the transition to Division I, and North Carolina Central’s 10-17 record was a sign of how difficult the change was for the women. While the men’s transition has been more successful (this year’s team made its second straight trip to the NCAA tournament), the women’s team hasn’t had a winning season while playing Division I.

The players who decided to come to Durham to play at North Carolina Central knew the challenges. But they decided to play for the Eagles anyway, with hopes of becoming a member of the team that would shift the culture.

“We all wanted to be a part of history,” said McCain, an all-conference player at Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte who averaged 5.4 points and 5.3 rebounds in 23 starts as a sophomore at North Carolina Central. “We all felt we could accomplish that.”

The coach who recruited McCain, Vanessa Taylor, left after the 2016-17 season when her contract wasn’t renewed. Taylor’s record in five years at North Carolina Central: 33-113.

In came a new coaching staff, and McCain, as captain, pulled her returning teammates together to make sure they were receptive to giving Stafford-Odom a fair shot.

“I told them we had to be positive, we have to buy in to what she wants from us,” McCain said. “I told everyone for us to grow, we needed to stand behind her and trust her.”

Some of the players interviewed said that didn’t last long as, according to several accounts, the returning players were pitted against Stafford-Odom’s recruits.

“The practices were real physical at the start with the new players, and we were really getting into it,” said Dominique Adams, who started all 29 games her sophomore season but had just 15 starts this past season. “We finally sat down with them and asked them, ‘What’s up?’ And they told us, ‘Y’all not going to be here next year.’ ”

That account was corroborated by Thompson, who was one of the new recruits.

“[Stafford-Odom] told us that we were there to take their spots,” Thompson said. “She told us she was getting rid of all the returning players. She turned us against them.”

Thompson started nine of the first 12 games and felt she was firmly in the rotation, and then her minutes became inconsistent. She went 13 straight games without a start and started to become concerned about her spot with the team — especially after the letter went out to parents in December saying some scholarships would not be renewed.

“Honestly, I was getting nervous, and every day in practice she would say, ‘Y’all gonna need to get a bus ticket back home when your scholarship is not renewed,’ ” Thompson said. “Then at the end of the season I was getting my minutes back. I felt I was doing my part and that I would be OK.”

While Thompson felt OK with her spot, not everyone was happy with what was going on with the team.

McCain said before an early-season trip to Colorado State, she couldn’t find her identification. She was given permission by an assistant coach to go to her room to search for it, and while she was gone the bus left.

“All my belongings — my car keys, my things — were on that bus, and when I tried to call the coaches, none of them answered,” McCain said. “It was 5 o’clock in the morning, it was dark, the campus was empty [for Thanksgiving break] and it could have been a dangerous situation. One of my teammates who didn’t make the trip gave me a ride to the airport, and I just barely made it.”

Players described road trips where the coaches rarely ate meals with the players.

“They’d drop us off at Applebee’s or Chipotle, and then the bus would take all the coaches somewhere different to eat,” Thompson said.

Adams recalled groups of players making long walks in search of meals while on the road.

“Sometimes it’s cold, sometimes it’s raining,” Adams said. “We’re a group of girls in places we don’t know. Anything could have happened.”

“Today she called me worthless, but at least she didn’t call me a loser in life like she did yesterday.” – Alyssa Thompson

Verbal abuse was raised as an issue by several of the players and their parents.

Adams said she saw the spirit of her teammates being drained. “They just ran us all the time and yelled at us, and everyone’s confidence went down,” she said.

McCain recalled the time an assistant coach berated the team in a post-practice huddle. “He told us that since we didn’t go hard that we weren’t going to make it in life,” McCain said. “Since I was the captain, everything that went wrong fell on me.”

Thompson likened the members of the team to an abused spouse. “We took the abuse like, ‘Well, today he hit me in my arm, but at least he didn’t punch me in my face like he did yesterday,’ ” she said. “ ‘Today she called me worthless, but at least she didn’t call me a loser in life like she did yesterday.’

“It was that type of thing. It was bad.”

When asked to speak to Stafford-Odom and McCree about the alleged verbal and mental abuse, the school did not make them available. Instead, the university issued another statement:

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) is committed to the academic excellence and well-being of all of its students. While federal and state laws prohibit NCCU from disclosing or otherwise commenting on a confidential personnel or student matter, allegations that involve the health and well-being of any member of the NCCU community are taken seriously. All reported allegations of inappropriate behavior on the part of any member of the university community are thoroughly investigated in accordance with established protocols, guidelines and procedures.

Thompson’s mother, Lisa Davis, sounded disgusted over the phone as she recalled the stories shared by her daughter during the season.

“The entire staff was so nice when they had us all in the coach’s office when they were recruiting her,” Davis said. “I would tell other recruits to run, and run fast. Your daughter will be emotionally drained and her love of basketball will be taken away if she agrees to go to North Carolina Central.”

Now after being told their scholarships weren’t being renewed, the former members of the North Carolina Central women’s team are trying to regroup.

McCain will graduate this summer, with the school paying for her final courses. She leaves with one year of eligibility remaining but realizes that her college career might be over. “I thought about taking part in senior night this year because I was a little worried, but they told me just wait until my final season,” McCain said. “I thought I was going to have a senior night at a school I love so much. That’s not going to happen.”

Adams, who won the team’s sportsmanship award during the 2016-17 season, when she averaged 6.6 points and 4.7 rebounds while playing a MEAC-leading 36 minutes a game, will also graduate this summer. “I feel the coaches let me down,” Adams said.

Thompson will transfer to Fayetteville State. “I still want to play ball, and I can find an environment where I feel I’m wanted. NCCU isn’t the only school with a good nursing program.”

When new recruits visited North Carolina Central last season, Thompson was often their host. After news of the scholarships became public, one of those recruits reached out to Thompson.

Her advice?

“I told her I wasn’t trying to steer her in one direction or another,” Thompson said. “But I added that you’re going to have to come into this program with tough skin. They feed off of you being broken. They enjoy it.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.