Inside the Allegations of Racism at Lenoir-Rhyne University Women’s Basketball

Former players say racist culture led to their ousting

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When the women’s basketball coaching staff at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University, a small, predominantly white Christian school in Hickory, North Carolina, asked Laney Fox to meet with them on March 25, Fox had no idea what it was about. She was kicked off the team that day. Two months later, eight other players are gone, including four of the five Black players and four of Fox’s fellow white players who had spoken up about social justice issues. Head coach Grahm Smith, who was hired prior to last season, and his program are being investigated for racism per a statement from the university.

The players felt forced out in several ways. Some, like Fox, were outright cut from the team. Others were told that it would be “in their best interest” for them to transfer or that their scholarship wouldn't be renewed if they stayed. But there was one common thread: All of them had been vocal about racial injustices in a players-only group text.

For Fox, it started in September, when news broke that the officers who killed Breonna Taylor would only be charged for endangering a neighbor and not for the murder itself. Fox lamented the decision in the group chat, but some teammates didn’t share the sentiment. Tensions boiled over later that night, when one such player confronted Fox and six other pro-social justice teammates about the issue.

The next day, the coaching staff canceled practice and held individual meetings with each player followed by a team meeting. In her individual meeting, Fox brought to light several racist text messages that had been sent by other members of the team. One claimed that slavery wasn’t as bad as most people think because “some slaves were treated like family.” Another questioned why Black people had “blown [the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor stories] way out of proportion.” A third compared the Black Panthers to the KKK.

Fox noted a few red flags in the meeting, such as when associate head coach Audrey Timmerman voiced her opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement. “But at the end of the meeting,” Fox said, “they were like, ‘We really appreciate what you're doing and we encourage you to call out the racism [in the team meeting] later tonight, because to get over it we have to address the issue and we have to apologize and educate ourselves.’”

At the team meeting, Fox spoke out against the racist texts, as she had been encouraged to do. She felt at the time that the meeting had been productive. “There was crying from a few of the white players, but overall I thought it was good because it was exposed,” she said. “At the end they did apologize, and I thought we were gonna do better and educate ourselves.”

Fox wasn’t the only one to speak up at that meeting. A teammate who wishes to remain anonymous (we’ll call her Johnson) voiced her opinions as well. Timmerman approached her after the meeting to commend her on how she handled herself. “She was like, ‘I applaud you for how you spoke up in the meeting,’” Johnson said. “She felt like I wasn't as hard on the white girls as other people were.”

As the school year went on, social justice rarely came up in the group texts. Fox stayed in touch with the team from her home in Florida after opting out of the season. It wasn’t until the conclusion of the season when Black and anti-racist players began to get cut or forced out. To the players, the encouragement from coaches early in the season now look like empty platitudes. 

A second player who spoke anonymously (we’ll call her Davis) said she was told in her first postseason meeting that her scholarship would be cut in half and that she could have some time to decide whether or not to accept that. When she came back and informed Smith that she’d accept the reduced scholarship, Smith communicated that he had changed his mind and revoked the entirety of her scholarship.

Davis was given three reasons for this decision, none of which were related to on-court performance. The first was that she had made a comment early in the season about being homesick. According to Davis, none of the coaches said anything about it to her at the time, or in the following weeks, but at the end of the season they told her this was evidence that she “wasn’t bought into the culture.”

The second reason Davis was given was that she failed to schedule enough individual workouts and film sessions with the coaching staff. “I had previously tried to schedule workout individuals and especially film individuals, and they would just forget about me,” Davis said. She added that on one occasion she scheduled film sessions on consecutive days — with Timmerman and graduate assistant Peter Heron — and neither coach showed up.

Smith’s final justification to Davis for his decision was a party that she had attended in November that broke COVID-19 protocols. Davis was one of many players at this party, and all received a multi-game suspension from the school. Davis recalled that at the time, Smith told the players, “I’m not gonna punish you any more [than the school did]. I think administration gave you all a tougher punishment than I would have … so I’m not gonna hold anything against you.”

The party in November was not the only one that broke protocols, but it was the only one that led to punishment from the coaching staff. Another group of players held a large gathering in which they distributed alcohol to minors. These players, who opposed Fox on issues of social justice, remain on the team under full scholarship, as does one white player who attended the November party.

A third anonymous player (we’ll call her Miller) was told her scholarship would be drastically reduced because she attended the November party. Yet, immediately after the suspension, Miller returned to play significant minutes for the team. “If it was held against us, then they shouldn't have had me play all season,” she said. “I had no clue that I was going to be cut.”

Fox was equally blindsided when she was cut in her second postseason meeting; she had been reassured of her spot just days prior. “I was completely thrown off guard because [in] the meeting before, he [had] just said, ‘No need to worry. Everything's good, Laney, you'll always be good.’”

The cuts have left the players in tough situations as they decide what’s next. “[They] ripped our lives up from under us that we've worked so hard for, for absolutely no reason except calling out racism,” Fox said. “That's insane. We've worked for years to get college scholarships.”

“I don't know if they realize how they basically uprooted all of our lives by cutting us,” Miller added. “Basically with no warning, they really just changed all of our lives.”

Fox wasn’t at the party that was used as a reason to cut some of her teammates, but her dismissal was still due to what Smith called a “culture standpoint and a buy-in standpoint.” Fox’s messages in the players-only texts, from her pro-social justice stances to her pandemic cautiousness, were the main infractions the coaches cited.

“You’re continuing to send messages in that group chat that have nothing to do with our basketball culture [or] our goals,” Smith told her after he received complaints from some of the players whose viewpoints didn’t align with Fox’s. He also brought up a text she had sent before the season mentioning the possibility of canceling the season due to COVID-19. “That does not show me and show us a 100% … buy-in,” Smith said in the meeting. The coaching staff hadn’t mentioned that text to Fox prior to the second postseason meeting.

Between the lack of communication on these issues during the season and the anti-racist stances shared by the players who were forced out, the players believe that the stated reasons were ultimately smokescreens used to conceal the true motivation: to cleanse the team of players whose views on social justice differ from those of the coaches and to create a “shut up and dribble” team culture.

“You’re cutting these ladies for comments that clearly you kept in the back of your mind … but you have players that have said racist things to us or were deliberately racist towards us,” Johnson said. “Those comments aren't strong enough for you to cut them for that?”

“We felt used,” Davis said. “They allowed us to play the whole season and win a few games for them and then they just cut us.”

Fox decided to speak publicly because she wants to see the culture improve at the university. She has a list of several steps she’d like to see Lenoir-Rhyne take to enhance the experience for students of color, from implementing a type of Mansfield Rule for hiring professors and coaches to eliminating the discriminatory rules in the team’s handbook. (Players aren’t allowed to wear do-rags, for example, which is a policy that disproportionately affects Black players.) Fox and some of her teammates are also calling for the resignation of the entire coaching staff as well as university president Fred Whitt, who accused Fox of fabricating the story before opening an investigation.

Whitt wrote in his initial statement that “a former student-athlete posted a number of false claims on social media … Lenoir-Rhyne flatly disagrees with this student's version of events. Her dismissal from the basketball team was a legitimate coaching decision, and suggestions to the contrary are simply false.” Later that week, the university opted to “retain an external, independent investigator to perform an appropriate review of this matter.”

All nine players who are no longer with the team are now in the transfer portal and plan to continue their basketball careers at a more supportive school, but they hope to see major changes at Lenoir-Rhyne for those who follow them.

"We need to apply some type of action, and I'm not even talking about paying us right now,” Fox said. “I'm just talking about protecting us and not letting us be exploited like this."

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