How many times can the system fail its female athletes? Today’s newest report of an abusive coach from The Athletic feels like it’s just the next in a long line of the mistreatment of female athletes by their coaches and institutions willingly overlooking complaints.
The case reported on today is somewhat more high-profile because of who the coach was — Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, described as the “Michael Jordan of women’s basketball” — is a pillar of the sport, having made a name for herself as one of the greatest players of all time on the college, professional, and international levels. Perhaps that is why she was able to keep moving from college job to college job as her athletes came forward and were turned away at the door, administration standing firmly by Cooper-Dyke as she allegedly abused basketball players physically, mentally, and emotionally.
The report is somewhat graphic in its detail, describing Cooper-Dyke calling her players “bitch,” “pussy,” and “retarded,” pretending to perform oral sex on a male assistant coach, commenting frequently and inappropriately on her athletes’ sex lives, forcing athletes to play through injuries, and physically punishing one athlete to the point where she was vomiting profusely and had skin scraped off of her knees and shoulders. It goes on — at UNC-Wilmington, at USC, at Texas Southern, at Prairie View A&M. Some former players spoke on the record, and others off, but the sentiment abounded: Cooper-Dyke had severely abused her power as a trusted adult in these girls’ lives.
And it’s happening on every level of women’s sports. Take the NWSL a professional league in which multiple coaches were accused of abuse just last year in the form of racist and bigoted statements, verbal abuse, and even sexual coercion directed toward players. Last month, the head coach of the University of Florida women’s soccer team was fired after complaints of verbal abuse just one season in. The Syracuse women’s basketball coach resigned in 2021 after players came forward with allegations of physical harassment and abusive language. Illinois fired their head women’s basketball coach in 2017 after players filed a lawsuit alleging a racially abusive environment within the program.
The discouraging part about this list and about the piece on Cooper-Dyke is that these are just the ones that we know about, that the administrators had the foresight to get rid of. Many players’ concerns were dismissed regarding Cooper-Dyke, and it would be foolish to think that type of dismissal is only happening at the schools where she was coaching.
Women’s sports face a great deal of hurdles and challenges, and while their growth in popularity, viewership, and funding throughout the past few decades has been really encouraging, this piece really emphasizes that the issues that need to be addressed in womens’ sports aren’t always necessary in the broader public.
It’s not an issue of “being soft,” it’s an issue of treating college athletes with some basic decency and respect. Bobby Knight’s behavior toward players was overlooked for a long time because he was winning, but public humiliation of young adults isn’t “tough love,” it’s an abuse of power and has the potential to be incredibly psychologically damaging, an effect that several of the women in The Athletic article described feeling.
The new student-athlete empowerment era seems to be an indescribable good in situations like this. The ability to transfer at will and to use one’s voice to speak out should hopefully help to alleviate some of these program disasters. But first and foremost, administrators and leadership need to believe athletes when they say that something is wrong rather than letting people like Cooper-Dyke go unchecked for years.