UDM player claims team's 'cry for help' ignored; AD says abuse allegations unsubstantiated

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — A three-year player on the Detroit Mercy women's basketball team has claimed university officials ignored the entire roster's "cry for help," while the school's athletic director said an independent investigation found allegations of emotional, mental and physical abuse against first-year coach AnnMarie Gilbert "were not substantiated."

Meanwhile, the program remains in a state of disarray, with no players from last season's roster expected back for the 2021-22. Thirteen players entered the transfer portal after the season was shut down amid the allegations in January. Two of them have withdrawn their names, but aren't expected to return to the team. Most of the players are transferring to other schools, while a few are expected to leave basketball.

Detroit Mercy officials canceled the season in mid-January after just 14 games. The move came after a letter signed by at least one parent of every player was sent to school and NCAA officials, detailing the claims of abuse.

Detroit Mercy athletic director Robert Vowels.

This week, for the first time, a Detroit Mercy player has gone public about the situation. Guard Jiera Shears, from Charlotte, North Carolina, posted a brief video on Twitter under the header "A dream deferred," in which she put the school on blast, and then elaborated on her experience under the new coaching staff in a lengthy interview with The Detroit News. Among her claims: That Gilbert didn't care about academics, and that Gilbert dismissed her concussion symptoms as made up or, at the least, overblown.

Shears officially entered the transfer portal May 3, following the decision to retain Gilbert.

"Please understand, I'm not a quitter. That's not how my sister and I were raised," Shears told The News this week. "When we found out (Gilbert was retained), it was very disappointing to feel like an entire team, who reached out because we were in a toxic situation, in distress, to feel like we were ignored.

"Our cries for help weren't taken seriously.

"It was extremely disappointing."

Parents of the players sent a letter to athletic director Robert Vowels, president Antoine Garibaldi and three NCAA officials Jan. 17, detailing several claims of abuse by Gilbert. That week, Vowels met with players three different times — first as a team, then individually, then again as a team, Shears said.

At the last meeting, Shears said, the players expressed their desire to play out the season, including that weekend's series at Youngstown State, but only under an assistant coach and not Gilbert.

Vowels declined, the season was scrapped, and an independent investigation was launched — after which, players were interviewed by university compliance and human-resources officers. It then took nearly three months for the school to announce Gilbert was staying, though Shears believes that decision was inevitable.

"It kind of felt like it was brushed under the rug," said Shears, "that we were ignored."

In a statement this week in response to The News inquiring about Shears' claims, Vowels said: "Any concern from a student-athlete about health or safety receives my highest priority. Every concern expressed from this team was heard by athletic and university administration immediately following the initial letter that was sent from the team and parents on Jan. 17. For the next two days, I listened first-hand to every member of the team and took appropriate action to look into each situation. We then conducted an internal fact-finding by an independent outside legal counsel and the allegations were not substantiated which led to us retaining the head coach."

Vowels added that the school has "put steps in place" to ensure a safe and healthy environment for all student-athletes, echoing his statement when Gilbert was retained.

The school's findings were sent to the NCAA. The report hasn't been made public, and Detroit Mercy, a private Jesuit institution, isn't subject to state FOIA laws.

Shears — the first player to speak on the record about the situation — said she first felt that something was off with the new coaching staff last summer. She had to miss one of the team Zoom meetings because of a class and said "I remember that being a situation between me and the coach." She said she later was told by Gilbert that she couldn't register for certain classes, because they conflicted with practice, while the previous staff, under coach Bernard Scott, "embraced" her major of mechanical engineering.

Detroit Mercy is a smaller university, with an enrollment under 5,000, and there aren't a lot of options for certain classes, especially specialty classes like ones Shears needed for her major.

"It was definitely very frustrating, that major change of having a staff that completely embraced academics to one I felt like put that on the back burner," she said.

The lack of emphasis on academics was among the allegations made by the parents. Another claim was that Gilbert encouraged players to play hurt. "Cowards limp, losers limp," Gilbert told the players, according the parents' letter.

Shears gave a personal example. During a practice in early November, before the season began, Shears hit her head hard, but finished practice and decided against going to the athletic department's trainer because there had been an environment where that was discouraged, she said. Later that night, Shears told her mother, Danielle, a neurological nurse at Levine Children's Hospital in Charlotte, about symptoms she was experiencing, including dizziness, lightheadness and headaches.

Danielle Shears was not happy, "as I'm sure you can imagine," Jiera said. The next morning, she saw the trainer and was diagnosed with a concussion. After the diagnosis, she went to see Gilbert, who, Shears said, "questioned whether my symptoms were real, questioned by toughness." Shears said she couldn't recall the exact questions.

The News reached out to a university spokesman requesting comment from Gilbert on that specific allegation. The school declined the request, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Gilbert hasn't spoken since the season was shut down, with the university turning down numerous requests The News and other media outlets.

Shears said there were several other examples of injuries being brushed off, but "I don't really want to tell anyone else's stories."

Other allegations in the parents' five-page letter: that Gilbert called the players, most of whom were recruited by the previous staff, "replaceable"; that she communicated unprofessionally with assistant coaches; that she gossiped about players; and that she gave up on her team "in the middle of games."

Shears said the concerns started during conversations between players, often in the locker room. They eventually grew so troubling, Shears said, that the players got the parents involved. The parents held a Zoom meeting in January, then drafted the letter, which was purportedly signed by at least one parent of each of the 14 players — though one parent later told The News the letter was sent without her consent or knowledge, even though she didn't dispute some of the claims. One notable absence from the signatures was Tim Webb, an assistant coach and parent of star guard Kaela Webb, a former Detroit Country Day standout who has transferred to Florida Gulf Coast. Webb remains listed as an assistant coach on the school's athletics website.

Every player supported the letter and the allegations, multiple players previously told The News, speaking anonymously.

Jiera Shears, a guard, played three seasons at Detroit Mercy.

Only one player from last year's roster didn't enter the portal, forward Nicole Johanson. Two players withdrew from the portal, forward Maxine Moore and guard Aly Reiff. Moore expressed interest in returning to the team, but will not be back, while Johanson and Reiff appear to be leaving basketball behind to focus solely on school.

Detroit Mercy hasn't released a roster for 2021-22. The school has announced one signing for this recruiting class — a December commitment of Pennsylvania guard Taylor Blunt, whose Twitter account still identifies her as a future Titan. A second recruit, Louisiana Tech transfer Irene Murua, gave her commitment on Twitter on Friday.

As for Shears, she wants to keep playing basketball. It's a family passion, as her sister, Jordan, played at St. Joseph's and Norfolk State, and her mom at Knoxville College. But she also knows her options could be limited because she was so late to the portal — which has seen more than 1,000 women's basketball players enter this year — and because not every school offers her major. She wants to work on children's prosthetics, and one day start her own business.

"That was one of the few engineering schools that gave me an opportunity," Shears said of Detroit Mercy, where she played 63 games, including six after returning from a concussion. "It really was the perfect fit, and it's frustrating to have to be forced out of that perfect situation.

"I'm praying. I believe there is a plan set that God has for my life."

Gilbert in April 2020 was hired away from Division II Virginia Union, which she coached for five seasons, to a 135-18 record and the 2017 national championship game. The two years before that, Gilbert worked on a master's degree at Cleveland State while serving her NCAA show-cause penalty that led to her resignation from Eastern Michigan in 2012. The program was put on probation for four major violations, including exceeding practice time, an allegation also made by Detroit Mercy parents and players. She began her head coaching career with an eight-year run at Oberlin, a Division III school in Ohio, and was an assistant coach at Michigan State from 2002-07 as a key recruiter for a program that played in the 2005 national-championship game.

The Titans were 1-13 when the final 10 games of the regular season were canceled.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984