| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Mercy’s women’s basketball team is cancelling the remainder of its season, and it is not due to COVID-19 issues.
A letter obtained by the Free Press and signed by 14 players and their parents was sent Sunday to Titans athletic director Robert Vowels Jr. It detailed a number of allegations of player mistreatment and potential NCAA violations by first-year coach AnnMarie Gilbert, whose time at Eastern Michigan in the last decade ended with the school being placed on probation due to infractions.
Multiple parents contacted by the Free Press confirmed the authenticity of the letter and expressed their frustrations with how Gilbert has treated their daughters over the past nine months since she was hired April 24, 2020.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said one parent, who requested anonymity Wednesday due to concerns of retribution toward their daughter. “Our girls are just not the same.”
An athletic department spokesperson responded to an email with a statement from Vowels, stating:
“The health and well-being of our student-athletes is our athletic department’s top priority. 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 has not responded to email requests for comment from the Free Press.
The letter was crafted after parents held video meetings during which they began to realize the extent of the situation. Many of them had not met together in a group this season due to pandemic restrictions, but they were “blown away by the horrific stories of utter disregard for the care and wellbeing of our student-athletes” as each detailed their daughter’s stories, according to the letter.
“Everybody had their own little things but thought it was isolated,” said another parent, who also requested anonymity Wednesday. “It makes it tough under COVID when there’s no interaction between parents – you don’t see each other at games, there’s just no connection there. Last weekend, everybody got on a Zoom and told their stories. It started real slow, and then somebody told a story and it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ And then someone else did.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, she’s just evil. She’s bad to everybody.’”
Sources told the Free Press that at a Wednesday afternoon meeting between Vowels and the team, players said they would play this weekend at Youngstown State only if Gilbert was not the coach. Vowels reportedly told them he felt the rest of the season should be canceled “unless you tell me differently” and that Detroit Mercy president Antoine M. Garibaldi had been notified of the situation. Players expressed their concern for potential backlash from the school or Gilbert if she remained or was not put on a leave of absence for an investigation into the allegations.
The letter also accuses the former Eastern Michigan head coach and Michigan State assistant of creating an environment “so toxic and draining that players have made comments in the locker room about having suicidal thoughts as well as purposely injuring themselves” to avoid potentially having to deal with Gilbert’s alleged “belittling and emotional abuse.”
“It has become painfully obvious that our young women are suffering emotional, mental and physical abuse under the leadership of (Gilbert),” the parents and players wrote. “Many of us have encouraged our daughters to seek the help of administration, however the girls are terrified of the retaliation from Coach Gilbert, who has created a hostile environment of fear and isolation. … Some players report that they have never had a battle with mental health until this season.”
Vowels received the letter late Sunday night and responded to parents overnight Monday. In it, there were multiple accusations that included:
• Players being told by Gilbert to not tell trainers if they believed they were injured, which “created a toxic environment in which players are afraid to honestly communicate their injuries and illnesses to the athletic trainer” Mike Miller. It is alleged Gilbert told them “if your bone isn’t sticking out, you need to be giving something.” Those injuries included concussions, plantar fasciitis, bone bruises, fractures and migraines, and players allegedly were “coerced and guilted into competing” while hurt;
• Demands by Gilbert that players “disregard or not report” COVID-19 symptoms if they felt sick on game days;
• Violations of NCAA rules that require athletes and teams not exceed 20 hours of countable athletically related activities per week;
• Players “being directed to do extra workouts as a sign of commitment” to the program, with those who are not getting significant game action being required to do those on off days or after the four-hour daily NCAA practice limit;
• Gilbert telling players they were “not being committed to the success of the program” by prioritizing academics over basketball;
• Forcing players to drop or bypass classes that interfered with the daily noon-3 p.m. practice time, including labs needed to graduate that are only offered by UDM between 2-5 p.m. one day a week;
• Using offseason training and running activities as “mandates and prerequisites for playing time” during the season;
• Assistant coaches — specifically Tim Webb, whose daughter, Kaela, is a junior guard – get “humiliated and harassed in front of players and on the sidelines” in practices and during games. She also is accused of threatening to fire coaches in front of players and forcing them to run with the team.
“It has come to the point now where the players collectively feel anxiety when playing in practice or in games,” the letter continued, adding players “are losing their love for the game” because they are fearful of and “avoid directly interacting” with Gilbert.
“You have complaints on teams a lot. That’s not unheard of,” one of the parents said. “But you have 100% participation. I don’t care if you’re the girl at the end of the bench that’s not getting any minutes or a starter that’s getting over 30 minutes, everybody’s got the exact same complaints.”
Vowels and associate athletic director Teri Kromrei met individually with players Tuesday. When the Titans arrived Wednesday morning, they were greeted in the gym by Gilbert ready to practice, according to multiple parents. Players went to demand a team meeting with Vowels and said they would not play for Gilbert. Vowels heard out their concerns in person for about 25 minutes Wednesday afternoon.
Players also expressed concern to Vowels that Gilbert is attempting to force them to enter the NCAA transfer portal en masse to reset the roster. She also allegedly told them not to speak to the athletic director.
Gilbert resigned as EMU’s head coach in 2012 and was given a two-year show-cause by the NCAA for multiple violations of excess practice time and recruiting issues. She also previously served as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at MSU under Joanne P. McCallie from 2002-07.
The 52-year-old sat out three years and returned after her show-cause expired in 2015 to Division II Virginia Union, where she went 135-18 at Virginia Union in five seasons that included an appearance in the 2017 Division II national title game.
UDM hired Gilbert last spring to replace Bernard Scott, whose contract was not renewed after going 3-27 last season and finishing with a 42-109 record in five seasons with the Titans. They are 1-13 overall and 1-9 in Horizon League play in Gilbert’s first season, having lost six straight including 80-61 Friday and 71-61 Saturday against Oakland.
Gilbert’s time in Ypsilanti from 2007-12 ended due to similar problems.
The Eagles placed themselves on two years of probation for self-reported NCAA violations tied to practice and recruiting under Gilbert in the 2009-10 season. She was suspended without pay for a month and her salary was frozen for the 2010-11 season following a two-month investigation by EMU’s compliance office, received a letter of reprimand and underwent mandatory counseling during her suspension. Gilbert also was required to attended an NCAA regional rules seminar and apologize to team members.
The NCAA added two more years to EMU’s probation in late 2012 after Gilbert resigned, also giving her the show-cause for failure to monitor her program and further violations of practice rules and illegally working out recruits.
The former Ohio University and Oberlin star went 94-64 record with the Eagles, winning the Mid-American Conference and making the NCAA tournament in her final season before resigning. Gilbert also spent eight years as head coach at Oberlin before joining MSU’s staff.
The accusations against Gilbert at Detroit Mercy come shortly after similar allegations were made this week about Horizon League women’s program, Purdue Fort Wayne and coach Niecee Nelson.
Gilbert’s daughter, Jada Walker, is a four-star point guard in the 2021 class who signed with Kentucky in November.
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.