Contemporary society dictates change

Published 7:39 am Monday, April 29, 2019

I never met any of the athletes on the 2018-19 roster for UNC women’s basketball. Nope, not a one.

I did meet their former coach Sylvia Hatchell several times in her travels crossing Carolina – usually on recruiting trips to Wilmington, or even journeys to speak at alumni fund-raisers. The latter is one of the ways non-revenue college sports have to raise money.

Hatchell resigned her position over a week ago after 33 years at the helm of the Lady Heels. She is the only coach to have won a national championship at all three levels of collegiate athletics: AIAW and NAIA (Francis Marion), as well as her NCAA championship at UNC in 1994 on Charlotte Smith’s buzzer-beater shot. It was only Hatchell’s eighth year with the program and just the fourth time she’d taken her team to the post-season.

She has a .716 winning percentage, having won over 1,000 games and in 2013 she was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame (Note: she’s been in the Women’s Hall of Fame since 2004).

But now, those are just facts and stats to be Googled; and facts, a great author once wrote, are the enemy of truth. Yes, that’s a paradox, but sometimes paradoxes bear closer examination.

In summary, complaints by players – and in some cases, their parents – led to an investigation of the UNC women’s program into instances of insensitive conduct, including use of racist language and demands that injured athletes play through the pain.

Now comes the paradox: some see this as players standing up to abuses from a coach and their being believed. Others might see it as spoiled millennials and their parents’ outcry against a coach for being tough on them, complaining and then, through those actions, being able to end that coach’s career.

Just about every photo I’ve seen of Hatchell she’s yelling at her players to perform better. ‘Hellfire and damnation’ coaches do that. In pre-game, cadences are called out and the player huddle chants in response; it’s a sort of motivation. Winning coaches encourage that.

If Hatchell lost touch with her players, to the point of them believing she wasn’t looking after their physical well-being, that she was insensitive to remarks the players found hurtful and offensive, then it was time for the school to make a change.

While on one hand Hatchell’s resignation was a product of too much power in the hands of athletes, part of me must admire the players’ willingness to stand up for themselves and contribute to some long-needed changes in the culture of sports.

While you don’t get into the Hall of Fame playing nice, you have to realize this is a new era where people feel much more strongly about their own sense of self-worth. Look at the #Me Too movement or Black Lives Matter as examples.

Sweat, sacrifice, and sometimes even suffering are still hallmarks of athletic success and achievement at the highest levels. In that case, UNC’s players are entitled – and they should be. These young women refused to suffer indignities abetted by ‘old-school’ traditions reinforced in college sports. They instead claimed their entitlements, choosing to “direct the course of their lives.”

The game has changed, coaches are going to have to adapt. Athletes feel they aren’t going to be the engines that run the program when they feel they can’t perform at their best. They’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re human as well, and we demand control.’

In the end, coaches – and players! – have to abandon the old mentality and embrace the new.

Carolina’s women players are showing the progressive power of sports. But also tapping into that power as a form of self-determination. They’re showing us how determined and disruptive attitudes are needed to succeed in contemporary society.

After all, history has shown us that it’s a disruptive attitude that’s often necessary if we want to achieve success.

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.