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Racial harassment in Coeur d'Alene mars Utah women's basketball team's tournament experience

Mar. 26—A group of racists waving confederate flags, revving their truck engines and yelling slurs victimized the University of Utah women's basketball team Thursday during their stay in Coeur d'Alene for the NCAA Tournament held in Spokane.

"For our players and staff to not feel safe in an NCAA Tournament environment, it's messed up," said Utah head coach Lynne Roberts.

The incident led the team to stay in Spokane for the remainder of their schedule.

"It's getting to the point where people of color can't even travel anywhere," Spokane NAACP President Lisa Gardner said. "This is starting to be reminiscent of the ' 60s."

The latest instance of public hate to stain North Idaho, the episode spurred some to question why the team was assigned to stay there in the first place.

"We should not have been there," Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan told KSL.com. "I do appreciate the NCAA and Gonzaga moving us from that situation, but we should never have been there in the first place. So a lot of folks need to get home and heal from the whole matter."

Roberts addressed the situation at a news conference following the team's loss Monday to first- and second-round tournament host Gonzaga.

On Thursday, the Utah team and another women's team staying at the Coeur d'Alene Resort were walking to dinner at a restaurant on Sherman Avenue when the driver of a truck displaying a confederate flag began yelling the N-word and other racial slurs at members of the basketball teams, cheerleaders, the band and others in the traveling party.

As the team left the restaurant to return to their hotel, the driver of the truck was joined by "reinforcements from fellow racists," according to the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations. They followed the women back to the resort, hurling more hate speech and revving the engines of their trucks, menacing the players.

"You know, you think in our world in athletics and university settings, it's shocking," Roberts said at a press conference Monday night following her team's loss to Gonzaga. "There is so much diversity on a college campus, and so you're just not exposed to that very often. And so when you are, it's like — you know, you have people say, 'Man, I can't believe that happened.' But you know, racism is real. It happens. It's awful.

"So for our players, whether they are white, Black, green, whatever, no one knew how to handle it. It was really upsetting."

The episode led to Utah athletics officials calling police at 9:57 p.m.

The caller, identified in a police report as a Utah team donor, reported to police what occurred four hours earlier at about 6 p.m.

The caller told police that the team had visited Crafted Tap House, at 523 Sherman Ave., when two "lifted pickups" were "revving their engines and speeding by the team as they walked down Sherman.

"The trucks then turned around and came back towards the team and yelled the 'N' word at them as many of their players are African American," the Coeur d'Alene Police report states. The caller "stated the incident caused a well-founded fear among the players."

Police were unable to find the people who harassed the players, said Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Lee White. He said the FBI has been called to assist since federal laws, such as malicious harassment and disorderly conduct, may have broken.

Detectives are seeking videos from businesses or any of the 100 or so people who were in the area at the time.

Gonzaga women's basketball head Coach Lisa Fortier said in a statement Tuesday that the incident made the visiting team's experience "unforgettable for the wrong reason."

"I am deeply saddened to hear about the awful racial hate that was directed to the student-athletes, coaches, and staff that were in Coeur d'Alene. As a student-athlete and coach, your goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament, and it should be an unforgettable experience. In this case, it is unforgettable for the wrong reason and for that I hurt for those that were subjected to such despicable hatred," Fortier said in the statement.

Spokane hotels were booked amid major events colliding on the same weekend.

The city, as it has for years, played host to the Pacific Northwest Qualifier volleyball tournament and its 800 teams, said Spokane Sports Communications Director Keytra Lewis. The NCAA has a requirement for hotels where teams can stay. The Coeur d'Alene Resort — considered perhaps the region's premier hotel — is what the NCAA "signed off" on for the women's team, which was decided somewhat last-minute due to the outcome of the tournament, Lewis said.

Bill Regan, manager of the Coeur d'Alene Resort, called the harassment terrible during the Tuesday press conference.

"These students had a right to walk downtown, free of harassment. Don't let the actions of a few indict all of Coeur d'Alene," he said.

Spokane also hosted the men's basketball first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, which was awarded to the city several years ago.

The team from visiting UC Irvine, which also stayed in Coeur d'Alene, did not witness similar conduct but requested to move "for the well-being and safety of our student athletes and the entire travel part," said Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for UC Irvine.

The South Dakota State University team stayed in Post Falls and had no problems, said spokesman Mike Lockrem.

Charmelle Green, who is Black and the deputy athletic director for Utah, told KSL.com that after the team returned to their Coeur d'Alene hotel Thursday night, she started to cry.

"I will never forget the sound that I heard, the intimidation of the noise that came from that engine, and the (N-word)," she said. "I go to bed and I hear it every night since I've been here."

Gardner noted that athletes of color on the team were confronted with racist remarks right before one of the biggest games of their careers.

"It puts them in a bad headspace going into a game to know that they're in a racist territory, that they're getting racial slurs thrown at them before a very important game," Gardner said. "That's just unfortunate. I don't know what to say outside that it's just absolutely disgusting."

In a statement, tournament host Gonzaga said: "Hate speech in any form is repugnant, shameful and must never be tolerated. We worked hard to secure the opportunity to serve as the host institution, and our first priority is and must be the safety and welfare of all student-athletes, coaches, families and supporting staff. ... We are frustrated and deeply saddened to know that what should always be an amazing visitor and championship experience was in any way compromised by this situation, for it in no way reflects the values, standards and beliefs to which we at Gonzaga University hold ourselves accountable."

At Crafted Taphouse, restaurant manager Junior Mujtaba said Tuesday they were happy to accommodate the Utah team.

"I would say the team looked still cheerful and happy when they came in, but I could tell something was going on. There was a couple of them that were going back and forth talking to Kendall, the head coordinator for everything ... Talking to the coaches, and I could see something was going on," Mujtaba said. "I was kind of worried, wondering, I thought it might have been us. But they ended up relaxing and calming down and having a good time."

The restaurant does not have outside security cameras. But an indoor camera caught the team pouring through the front door.

Coeur d'Alene is full of tourists, and it doesn't look good for the city, Mujtaba said.

"The fact this happened is embarrassing. They were talking about coming back," he said. "I was disappointed to hear they left."

The human rights task force statement said: "This is once again a stain on our community that we have worked so hard to erase since the early days of the Aryan Nations.

"We are witnessing a troubling growth of a very toxic environment both nationally and locally by individuals and organized extremist groups to advance many forms of hatred labeling others as traitors, communists, vermin thus suggesting that some individuals are less than human.

"These words and actions are creating a serious divide among people. We must speak out against this destructive trend."

Dave Reilly, a self-proclaimed Christian nationalist and alt-right provocateur, interrupted the press conference and claimed he was a member of the media. He brought his child to the event and asked a question unrelated to the racial harassment, which led to a tense back and forth between speakers and Reilly. The conference was quickly shut down as people in the crowd booed him.

Reilly is known for his promotion of the 2017 Unite the Right Charlottesville rally that turned deadly. More recently, he had been hired as a consultant with the Idaho Freedom Foundation until a leadership shake-up earlier this year.

Coeur d'Alene Mayor Jim Hammond offered apologies on behalf of the city to the athletes of neighboring Utah.

"To the young women who endured racial slurs while visiting, I offer my most sincere apology," he said. "We, all of us, stand with you. We embrace you. We celebrate your accomplishments and strongly denounce any malicious treatment towards you." — With additional reporting by Thomas Clouse, Nick Gibson, John Stucke and Alayna Shulman