Detroit Mercy athletic director Robert Vowels said Wednesday the school self-reported NCAA violations following a two-pronged, weeks-long investigation into allegations against women’s basketball coach AnnMarie Gilbert.
Vowels said the internal probe found “the most serious allegations were found to be false and unsubstantiated,” including that the school disregarded COVID-19 protocol and Gilbert forced players to practice while hurt.
Vowels said the school began its formal inquiry the day after he canceled the final 10 games of UDM’s season Jan. 20, three days after he received a letter from all 14 players and their parents that claimed NCAA violations and player mistreatment under first-year coach Gilbert.
The letter accused Gilbert 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.” Players said they would no longer play for Gilbert, who was hired April 24, 2020, but would for any of the other assistant coaches.
MORE FROM THE PLAYERS: How UDM women's basketball's 'cry for help' shattered dreams, gutted roster
“It completely blindsided me,” Gilbert said Wednesday of the letter and allegations. “In my opinion, we had a normal, healthy Division I atmosphere and environment.”
Gilbert and Vowels on Wednesday spoke for the first time since the situation began and refuted the allegations brought by the players and parents:
• Vowels said players being told by Gilbert to not tell trainers if they believed they were injured were "not substantiated."
“Injuries occurred, but they were properly addressed. No player ever — I repeat, ever — played who hadn't been cleared to play on the daily injury sheet.”
• Gilbert defended against the claim that players were “coerced and guilted” into playing and practicing with concussions, plantar fasciitis, bone bruises, fractures and migraines: “We don't force anyone to play or participate that is not able to do so.”
• Vowels on allegations Gilbert demanded players “disregard or not report” COVID-19 symptoms if they felt sick on game days: “No player or coach ever had COVID during the season despite the exhaustive testing. When I say exhaustive testing, we had PCR tests three times a week, and no one tested positive, student-athletes or coaches.”
THE PLAYERS' VOICES: Detroit Mercy women's basketball: Detailing the allegations against AnnMarie Gilbert
• Vowels confirmed that the men’s team prevented the women from using the shooting machines on the main court at Calihan Hall, a potential Title IX discrimination violation: “We had put some signs on the shooting machines, because we wanted to keep the floor open so the teams could come on and do drills. So we put the shooting machines on the side of Calihan. And so once we were informed about that, Clifford Sims, our assistant AD for facilities, went out and set things up and provided access to the women's basketball players to shoot on the shooting machines. So that was an easy fix and resolution.”
• Vowels said players' claims that Gilbert told them they were “not being committed to the success of the program” by prioritizing academics and being forced to drop or bypass classes that interfered with practice time: “Another extensive view of the evidence simply did not support the allegation. The GPA was over 3.0 for each of the two semesters, and at no point in time was any student-athlete asked to change a class or their major to accommodate practice or competition.”
Multiple parents said they started meeting via video call in January after hearing similar issues their daughters were having with Gilbert, who went 1-13 overall (1-9 Horizon League) in her first season at UDM. Vowels said “there had been no previous complaint or warning” before he received the letter, which was sent Jan. 17.
Vowels said Gilbert has not been suspended or given a leave of absence during any portion of the investigation.
The allegations of player mistreatment were investigated by Butzel Long attorney Carey DeWitt, the school’s outside legal counsel, and UDM human relations director Alana Dillard-Slaughter. The school’s investigation into NCAA violations was completed by Vowels, DeWitt and assistant athletic director for compliance Steve Corder.
Vowels said every player “saving a few” who declined, Gilbert and relevant staff were interviewed. Also reviewed were “hundreds of pages of documents, texts, emails and other data” over “a period of several weeks.” The school announced April 15 it planned to keep Gilbert, a little less than three months after the letter detailing the allegations was received.
The NCAA portion of the investigation found two Level 3 violations. One was for instances of supervised running last June and the other “approximately 3-6 hours” of extra, countable athletically related activity “during some weeks of the season.”
Vowels said the school self-reported those findings to the NCAA.
“I came here to be a part of change, positive change, to help change the culture,” said Gilbert, who received a two-year show-cause penalty for similar issues at Eastern Michigan that led to her 2012 resignation. “To help chart a path to national prominence, to impact these women positively. I’m here to coach, to teach, to develop them and to grow them into strong, empowered women.
“I’m saddened about the outcome, but I’m looking forward.”
The NCAA deems those “violations that are isolated or limited in nature; provide no more than a minimal recruiting, competitive or other advantage; and do not include more than a minimal impermissible benefit.” Vowels said the school is working with the NCAA, “and the remedies will be in place beginning with the upcoming academic year.”
Former player Abbie McDowell told the Free Press last week that two days after UDM’s Nov. 25 opener against Xavier and the day after Thanksgiving, the Titans worked out for 6½ hours. The limit is four per day. It became more and more regular, between lifting, practice and film study, she said.
McDowell said in another instance, the team lifted weights during the morning for an hour, then went through a three-hour practice. When it was done, Gilbert sent them to the film room for more work. She questioned having already hit the four-hour daily limit, and a staff member heard her and walked away.
“It just kept happening and happening,” McDowell said. "It kind of became norm.”
Asked if she thought she might be fired, Gilbert said “anything is possible” in a coaching career.
“It might sound harsh when you only hear one side. But we're hopeful that the balance of this conversation will help people understand why I'm still here,” she said. “I'm grateful. I don't feel like this is a win versus loss or anything like that. At the time, yes, you don't know. We just don't know in the world of athletics. But I'm very grateful to be here.”
Vowels said before he hired Gilbert, whose tenure from 2007-12 at EMU ended in NCAA violations, he spoke with both her former athletic director there Derrick Gragg and Virginia Union athletic director Joe Taylor. Gilbert returned to coaching in 2015 at the school in Richmond, Virginia, after three years off.
“I was informed that no other violations or misconduct had occurred at Virginia Union in the five years that coach had been there from 2015 to 2020,” Vowels said of hiring Gilbert.
All 14 Titans players from the 2020-21 roster have either left the program or been told they can remain in school but no longer play basketball. Vowels said that decision was reached through “hard discussions.”
“Bottom line,” Vowels said, “they were not going to play for Coach Gilbert. They declined to.”
Vowels also said he heard from “a couple” of donors but not many during the ongoing situation.
“As we all know,” he said, “there are two sides to a story. We’re glad to get our side out.”
Gilbert said she never envisioned having to replace an entire roster when she took the job. She added she has commitments from about half of what she needs to field a team for next season, “but those individuals are not 100% signed yet.”
“We're moving forward in a positive fashion,” she said. “We have identified individuals that we believe can compete in this league, match up with the values of the university and really want to come here and help us turn things around.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Mercy's AnnMarie Gilbert, AD address allegations, violations