Utah women’s basketball experienced ‘racial hate crimes’ during NCAA Tournament, coach says

Lynne Roberts made the comments after the Utah Utes lost to Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament.

(Young Kwak | AP) Utah head coach Lynne Roberts speaks during a press conference after a second-round college basketball game against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament in Spokane, Wash., Monday, March 25, 2024.

The Utah women’s basketball team was hyped to play in yet another NCAA Tournament. It was an opportunity to show the country just what Utes basketball was about, and that they could still make a deep run despite missing key players Gianna Kneepkens and Isabel Palmer.

But that good feeling changed during the first two rounds of the tournament. The team hotel was in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, despite Gonzaga — located in Spokane, Washington — being the host school.

During their stay, Utah coach Lynne Roberts said, the team experienced racism. Because of that, Roberts said, the team had to change hotels.

“We had several instances of some kind of racial hate crimes towards our program,” Roberts said after the team lost to Gonzaga. “Incredibly upsetting for all of us. You know, you think in our world in athletics and university settings it’s shocking in a — like there is so much diversity on a college campus and so you’re just not exposed to that very often.”

The team went out to dinner at Crafted, a gastropub in Coeur d’Alene, at 6 p.m. Thursday night, according to a Coeur d’Alene Police Department report.

As the team walked down the street by the restaurant, two lifted pickup trucks started “revving their engines and speeding by the team,” the report said. The two pickups circled back down the street and shouted the N-word at the team, according to the police report.

Police were told several hours later, the report said, and did not get descriptions of the suspects.

The team left the Idaho hotel Friday, Roberts said. She added that Gonzaga and the NCAA helped find the team a new hotel.

Gonzaga Athletics released a statement on X regarding the incident.

“Hate speech in any form is repugnant, shameful and must never be tolerated,” the statement says in part. “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.”

Roberts said her players not being able to feel safe during the tournament was “messed up.” She also said “no one knew how to handle” what happened.

“It was a distraction and upsetting and unfortunate,” Roberts said. “This should be a positive for everybody involved. This should be a joyous time for our program. To have kind of a black eye on this experience is unfortunate. ... So the shock of like, wow, I can’t believe that happened. Yeah, I think it happens a lot. It doesn’t get talked about enough.”

Salt Lake City mayor Erin Mendenhall voiced her support for Utah’s program on social media.

“Coach Roberts and @UTAHWBB showed immense courage by speaking up about the racism they experienced,” Mendenhall wrote on X. “I want them to know their city supports them. Across history, women have been driving forces for change. Today is no different and this team is made up of incredible athletes who embody this. Their courage in telling their story advances the work in our nation to eliminate racism.”

On Monday, Utah athletics director Mark Harlan, deputy athletics director Charmelle Green and Roberts released a joint statement on X confirming what was in the police report and said, “Now, several days later, we are continuing to provide support and resources to all of those impacted by the events in Idaho last Thursday.”

The statement goes on to say: “As we continue to heal, we remain very disappointed in the decision to assign our team hotels at such a great distance from the competition site, in another state. We will work with NCAA leadership to make it clear that being so far removed from the site was unacceptable and a contributing factor to the impact of this incident.”

The NCAA did not immediately respond to an inquiry from The Salt Lake Tribune asking for an explanation regarding Utah’s accomodations in a different state.

— Kevin Reynolds contributed to this report.