When Syracuse women's basketball coach Quentin Hillsman was asked in April why 11 of his players have entered the transfer portal over the past year, he didn't offer an explanation, instead proclaiming "we're fine."
But things are not fine. According to Chantel Jennings and Dana O'Neil of The Athletic, who spoke to nine former players and 19 other sources, Hillsman's erratic and "often-inappropriate" behavior — which allegedly includes verbal abuse, bullying, and unwanted touching and kissing — caused both players (20 total since 2018) and staff members to leave in droves. Four players told The Athletic they experienced thoughts of self-harm or suicide while playing for Hillsman, and five sought therapy due to their experience in the program.
Additionally, players told The Athletic that they tried to alert the school several times about the problems Hillsman was causing, but were consistently ignored.
2016 championship run was 'line of demarcation'
Hillsman, who has coached Syracuse since 2006, led the team to a national championship appearance in 2016. Players told The Athletic that's when things began to change for the worse.
Players and others in the program said that following the success in 2016, they felt as if Hillsman began treating some of them as mere role players in his one-man show. “There was this time in the film room where he mentioned something along the lines about how he doesn’t really care about us, and that he doesn’t care if we like him, because he’s a star,” one former player said. “He beat his chest and said, ‘I’m a star.’”
Players said that Hillsman essentially ignored them off the court, rarely interacting with them or checking on them when they were injured. Taleah Washington, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 and then COVID-related heart inflammation last year, told The Athletic that Hillsman only called her after he received a phone call from her father, "berating" him for ignoring her. When Hillsman finally did call, Washington said the call lasted less than 30 seconds before he ended it.
When it came to basketball, though, Hillsman was allegedly harsh and unforgiving. Via The Athletic:
[Hillsman] often threatened the players, sometimes using vulgar language. “The way he threatened us, like we all knew he would never physically harm us, but he’d always be talking about beating our asses. Like, ‘I’ll f*** you guys up. I’ll f*** you up. It’s gonna be your ass if you f*** this up,’” said one former player. More than 10 people described Hillsman acting in that manner.
At halftime of one game during the 2019-20 season, Hillsman went around the locker room, standing before every player and saying to each: “I don’t give a f*** about you.” Then he flipped a table. Seven people present recalled this incident.
Several former players told The Athletic about incidents in which they experienced unwanted physical contact from Hillsman that made them feel uncomfortable. Three players allege that Hillsman kissed them all on the forehead following a chat about playing time. One player recalls feeling "violated" when Hillsman allegedly wrapped his arms around her from behind and put his hands near her pelvis. The incident was witnessed by two others, and Hillsman "brushed it off as a joke."
Syracuse AD claims he never knew of any problems
When contacted by The Athletic for comment, Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack claimed that he knew nothing about any issues within the program.
“Learning after-the-fact through the media that a student-athlete has had a concerning experience limits our ability to investigate an issue in real-time. We urge any student-athlete – from across all sports, past and present, to bring to our attention any incidences of inappropriate behavior so we may initiate an investigation. We also implore student-athletes to be candid in their exit interviews. The only way our leadership can address issues is if we know about them.”
Players told The Athletic that they gave the school numerous opportunities to find out what was going on and why so many students were leaving, but they simply didn't seem interested in learning. One player said that she signed up for a Zoom call with administrators to explain why she was leaving, but no administrators ever logged onto the call. Another said that she detailed some of the issues with Hillsman in an online questionnaire she got from a school employee, but no one ever contacted her about it.
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