Detroit Mercy shuts down women's basketball season after allegations against new coach

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
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Detroit — University of Detroit Mercy officials have called off the rest of the women's basketball season after players' parents cried foul about the program's first-year head coach.

The parents of the entire Detroit Mercy women's basketball roster have signed a letter to the university administration claiming new head coach AnnMarie Gilbert ran a program that inflicted "emotional, mental and physical abuse" on the players. The letter, dated Sunday and obtained by The News on Thursday, said the parents decided to take action because their daughters were worried about retaliation, claiming Gilbert created a program rooted in "fear."

All 14 Detroit Mercy players supported the parents' letter and the many claims of abuse, according to two players who both spoke on the condition that they remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. In meetings this week, a majority of players requested to play out the season without Gilbert as coach, but were told by university officials that was not "a viable option," according to the two players.

AnnMarie Gilbert

And, so, Detroit Mercy announced Thursday afternoon it was suspending the women's program for the rest of the season. The private school did not give a specific reason, but the COVID-19 pandemic was not mentioned as a reason.

"The health and well-being of our student-athletes is our athletic department's top priority," athletic director Robert Vowels said in a statement released by the school. "We have talked with all players and members of our women's basketball program about their concerns. We take them very seriously and will continue to review them closely.

"As we have prioritized the needs of our student-athletes during this challenging academic year, we have decided to suspend the 2020-21 women's basketball season."

Gilbert is in her first season as Detroit Mercy, hired away from Division II Virginia Union, which she took to the 2017 national-championship game. The five years before that stint, she coached at Eastern Michigan, winning 69 games over her last three years in Ypsilanti. 

During her time at Eastern Michigan, she was cited for four major NCAA violations, including too much practice time. That is one of the allegations by the Detroit Mercy parents, as well.

Another allegation: That Gilbert pressured players into play despite reported medical ailments, including COVID-19 symptoms. The letter from the parents detailed injuries by several players, including COVID-19 symptoms, concussions, plantar fasciitis, bone bruises, fractures and migraines. "Not one of those athletes who reported these injuries and symptoms were handled with care or concern," the parents' letter said. "In fact, they were coerced and guilted into competing."

"Coward's limp, losers limp," Gilbert has said to players, according to the letter.

The parents, in the letter, claim Gilbert has dissuaded players from going to medical staff, as well as interacting with university administration.

Gilbert didn't immediately respond to requests for comment from The News, and the university said she wouldn't comment. Vowels said he would not have a comment beyond his official statement.

Before writing the letter to Vowels, the parents met in a Zoom meeting.

"We were blown away by the horrific stories of utter disregard for the care and well-being of our student-athletes," the parents wrote in the letter.

Other claims from the parents: That Gilbert prioritized basketball over academics, even mocking players who have good grades for "not making basketball a priority"; that she has made comments during practices and games that players are "replaceable"; that she has communicated unprofessionally with assistant coaches, "insulting them and threatening to fire them"; that she gossips about players during practice and in one-on-one meetings with different players; and that she has given up on the team "in the middle of games."

"This letter is but a snapshot of the horrendous environment that our daughters have to endure every day," the parents wrote. "We come to you with our urgent request and implore you to take action to investigate immediately before something tragic happens. We request that an investigation be initiated immediately and Coach AnnMarie Gilbert be put on administrative leave pending the outcome of the internal investigation. We are not seeking any legal remedies at this time but reserve the right to further pursue any remedy we have."

Gilbert was hired in April, taking over for Bernard Scott, whose contract wasn't renewed after five seasons in which he went 42-109, with nine wins over his final three seasons. Gilbert, who had 20-win seasons in each of the eight years before arriving at Detroit Mercy, inherited 10 players, and recruited four additions. Gilbert previously was head coach at her alma mater, Division III Oberlin in Ohio, for eight seasons, and was an assistant at Michigan State. Her overall record as a head coach is 288-231.

This year's Titans are 1-13, 1-9 in the Horizon League, coming off last weekend's sweep by rival Oakland. Gilbert's contract, length and terms, haven't been made public by Detroit Mercy.

The letter, five pages long and single-spaced, also was sent to university president Dr. Antoine Garibaldi and three officials with the NCAA. Among the parents signing the letter was Shakela Webb, the mother of junior guard Kaela Webb. Webb's father, Tim, is an assistant coach on Gilbert's staff, and didn't sign the letter. Webb is said in the letter to be one of two staff members Detroit Mercy players feel comfortable confiding in.

The players met individually with Vowels on Tuesday, and the decision was made to cancel the rest of the season Wednesday, according to the two players, ahead of Thursday's announcement.

This is the second similar incident in the Horizon League to come to light this month. Earlier, Purdue-Fort Wayne women's coach Niecee Nelson was accused of mental and physical abuse. Nelson has publicly denied the allegations, brought by 14 players, six parents, an assistant coach and an athletic trainer.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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