Utah women's basketball team forced to change hotels after 'racial hate crimes'

Utah women's basketball team forced to change hotels after 'racial hate crimes'

The Utah women’s basketball team checked into a luxurious lakeside resort in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, last Thursday ahead of its first-round NCAA tournament game.

By the next morning, the NCAA was scrambling to find the Utes somewhere else to stay after they experienced what coach Lynne Roberts described as a series of “racial hate crimes.’

Roberts waited to reveal what happened until after Utah's season ended Monday night in Spokane with a 77-66 second-round loss to Gonzaga. The Utah coach described the incidents as “shocking” and said “no one knew how to handle it.”

“It was really upsetting,” Roberts said. “For our players and staff to not feel safe in an NCAA tournament environment, it's messed up.”

Utah shared more specifics about what its women's basketball team endured on Tuesday evening in a joint statement released by Roberts, athletic director Mark Harlan and deputy athletic director Charmelle Greene. The statement said that "a vehicle drove by and occupants shouted racial epithets" at the basketball team and the rest of Utah's traveling party as they walked from the hotel to have dinner at a Coeur d'Alene restaurant.

The Utah contingent ate dinner, only to face a similar situation when they left the restaurant. A vehicle, according to the Utah statement, slowly passed the group, "revving its engine with its occupants again shouting racially disparaging words and threats."

"As can be imagined, many students, staff and other members of the traveling party were deeply disturbed and fearful after the incidents, in what should be a safe and enjoyable experience," the Utah statement read. "Out of concern for their well-being and safety, we worked with Gonzaga and the NCAA to move to alternate accommodations in Spokane."

Tony Stewart, an official with the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, told Yahoo Sports that Utah's version of events matched what he had heard from executives at the Coeur d’Alene Resort and other third-party sources. The truck that first harassed the team displayed a Confederate flag, according to Stewart. When the team left the restaurant, Stewart said that same driver “was still there but he’d recruited reinforcements.”

“It’s very clear what they were up to,” Stewart said. “They’re bigoted racists and they want to drive minorities away.”

Officials from Coeur d'Alene held a news conference on Tuesday morning addressing the allegations of racism. Mayor Jim Hammond apologized directly "to the young women who endured racial slurs while visiting," adding that incidents like these "should never happen" and are "totally unacceptable."

Coeur d'Alene police chief Lee White said that his department was contacted Thursday night at 10 p.m. about an incident that happened four hours earlier. The Coeur d'Alene police department is attempting to speak to victims, to obtain video of the incident and to locate the individuals who yelled the racial slurs.

"Until we speak with the victims of this incident and more witnesses," White said, "it’s difficult for us to determine if a state or federal crime has occurred."

The Utah women’s team originally stayed more than 30 miles east of Spokane at the Coeur d'Alene Resort because hotel space in Spokane was limited. Spokane was a predetermined host site for the first and second round of the men’s NCAA tournament, which meant that hotel rooms for those eight teams were blocked off well in advance.

Some of those room blocks opened last Friday when the first men’s teams in Spokane were eliminated. A source familiar with the situation told Yahoo Sports that Gonzaga and the NCAA scrambled to hold those room blocks and offered them to Utah and UC Irvine, the other women’s team staying in Coeur d’Alene.

"We requested to move as well for the well-being and safety of our student-athletes and the entire travel party," said Mike Uhlenkamp, Assistant Vice Chancellor at UC Irvine.

The NCAA later issued a statement on Tuesday that it "condemns racism and hatred in any form" and that it is "devastated about the Utah team’s experience." When asked whether the NCAA will continue to hold events in Spokane or allow teams to be housed in Coeur d'Alene, an NCAA spokesperson did not respond.

Utah's joint statement described the school as "very disappointed in the decision to assign our team to hotels such a great distance from the competition site, in another state."

"We will work with NCAA leadership to make it clear that being so far removed from the site was unacceptable and a contributing factor to the impact of this incident," the Utah statement said.

Gonzaga also condemned the incidents, saying that its first priority is the safety and welfare of participants in the NCAA tournament.

“We are frustrated and deeply saddened to know what should always be an amazing visitor and championship experience was in any way compromised by this situation,” Gonzaga’s statement said.

Gonzaga had previously arranged for police escorts, the source familiar with the situation added, to ensure that Utah’s drive time from Coeur d’Alene to the arena in Spokane did not exceed the maximum allowable time of 30 minutes. The police escorts continued after Utah moved to a Spokane hotel, according to the source.

Roberts told reporters that what her team endured made it difficult for Utah players to focus on their games against South Dakota State and Gonzaga.

“It was a distraction and upsetting and unfortunate,” she said. "This should be a positive for everybody involved. This should be a joyous time for our program. To have kind of a black eye on this experience is unfortunate."