The University of Illinois has been the focus of myriad scandals in the past months. While much attention has been given to the academic and ethical transgressions, there has been relatively little paid to the outrageous behavior alleged to be emanating from the University’s athletic departments.
In early May, Simon Cvijanovic – a former offensive lineman for the Fighting Illini football team – took to Twitter where he alleged that the team’s head coach Tim Beckman forced him to play through injuries.
Cvijanovic said that he was pushed to continue playing after suffering a torn labrum and that during a meeting between Cvijanovic, Cvijanovic’s parents, Coach Beckman and offensive line coach Tom Brattan, Cvijanovic was told the pain was “in [his] head.”
The lineman went on to allege that when he suffered a knee injury, he was initially told that it was no big deal and that he’d be back in two weeks. Ultimately, Cvijanovic had to have surgery where they removed almost his entire meniscus.
He continued by stating that athletes haven’t spoken out because Coach Beckman “and his staff have systematically removed our voices by holding scholarships over our head.”
While facing criticism from much of sports media for having ‘sour grapes’ or an ‘ax to grind’, the University of Illinois fired Coach Beckman on Aug. 28 after an independent investigation into the allegations validated Cvijanovic’s claims. In part, the report stated: “During a preliminary briefing from the external reviewers, [Athletic Director Mike] Thomas said he learned of efforts to deter injury reporting and influence medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment and continue playing despite injuries. He also said in some instances student-athletes were treated inappropriately with respect to whether they could remain on scholarship during the spring semester of their senior year if they weren’t on the team.”
Meanwhile, this summer also saw the University face another athletic scandal in soccer. Former Illini player Casey Conine sued Athletic Director Mike Davis, soccer coach Janet Rayfield, sports medicine director Paul Schmidt, trainer Brittany Scott and the UIUC Department of Intercollegiate Athletics over alleged handling of her concussion spectrum injuries.
After suffering a concussion spectrum injury during an October 2014 game where she crashed into an opponent head on, she was not removed from the game. The coaching staff did not take her out despite her collapsing and having a difficult time making it to her feet. She had suffered two concussions in 2013 and that likelihood of more concussions increases if you’ve had previous ones.
Conine also alleges that the trainer – Brittany Scott – told her she was cleared to play despite never seeing a doctor. After playing in two more games, her symptoms got markedly worse and she saw a doctor who diagnosed the concussion. Ultimately she was told that she’d not be medically cleared to play again.
Conine’s suit alleges that the University did not follow its protocols for concussion spectrum injuries, did not protect her health and destroyed a possible professional sport career.
To round out the summer of scandal in UIUC sports, seven former women’s basketball players have also filed suit against the University alleging that Coach Matt Bollant and former assistant coach Mike Divilbiss created a racially hostile environment for the team.
The mostly African American players alleged that there was a series of racially charged comments from staff toward the black athletes. They also said that teams of white players were discussed as being more disciplined and intelligent while teams of mostly black/brown players were unintelligent, undisciplined and playing “west side ghetto” ball. The suit even alleges that the coaching staff had racially segregated travel arrangements for away games.
While the suit is currently making its way through the courts, an investigator hired by the University stated that the claims were unfounded. However, the investigator did note that the former coach Divilbiss was harsh and suggested update for a code of conduct for the coaches.
Taken in isolation, each of these is simply more legal egg on the face of the University at a time when it can ill afford that. However, taken in concert, it is another example of concerning institutional rot at the University of Illinois, right along with the other ethical scandals.
How has Athletic Director Mike Thomas managed to keep his job despite these serious examples of athlete mistreatment and apparent lack of institutional control?
To ensure that players’ medical care, dignity and rights are respected, lawsuits and investigations are a start. But there’s still a long row to hoe when it comes to ceasing the exploitation and harm to college athletes at the University of Illinois and beyond.