Coach’s alleged abusive behavior has Swarthmore women’s basketball players ready to leave
Five players said the coach made demeaning comments and uncomfortable visits to their dorm rooms and pressured them to play when they were sick, injured or needed to study.
Five members of Swarthmore College’s women’s basketball team are threatening to quit, saying the school failed to adequately respond to their complaints of inappropriate behavior by their new coach, including visits to their dorm rooms, demeaning comments and pressure to play when they were sick, injured or needed to study.
After an inquiry, the college in October concluded coach Candice Signor-Brown showed errors in judgment in some of her dealings with players since her hiring from Vassar College in 2019, according to a copy of an internal report by Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton obtained by The Inquirer. It barred Signor-Brown — and any Swarthmore coaches in the future — from visiting players in dorm rooms.
But Swarthmore, which declined to discuss what it described as a personnel matter, said Signor-Brown remains the coach and that it is “actively working” to address players’ concerns. Swarthmore’s provost and interim athletic director have developed a plan “for the team and coaching staff to reestablish trust and find a way forward together,” said spokesperson Alisa Giardinelli.
The claims have rocked the small, highly selective liberal arts college in Delaware County known as much for its progressive and protest-minded student body as its Division III athletic programs. They erupted this summer after a woman who said she played for Vassar when Signor-Brown was its coach anonymously posted on Instagram that the coach had sexually assaulted her in a hotel room eight years ago while out of town for an away game.
Swarthmore said in the report that neither it nor Vassar could substantiate the allegation. Vassar declined to comment on it. And according to the provost’s report, Signor-Brown told Swarthmore officials that “not everyone who posts things on social media is being honest or accurate.”
The Inquirer e-mailed Signor-Brown directly with questions about the report and the social media post. In a reply sent through a college spokesperson, she deferred to Swarthmore’s response and added: “I am deeply invested in working with the provost, the interim athletic director, and the team on a process of healing and moving forward.”
After a decade at Vassar, the 40-year-old Virginia native had been hired by Swarthmore to “start changing the culture” of its program and has acknowledged her “pretty intense and demanding” coaching style; last season, Swarthmore’s team made the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
“A year ago, there was tremendous excitement about a new coach for women’s basketball,” Willie-LeBreton wrote in the report. “Clearly, we are in a very different place today.”
The Swarthmore team didn’t play this academic year; the season was canceled due to COVID-19. But with about half of the eligible returning players saying they won’t be back if Signor-Brown remains, it raises questions about the team’s prospects for next year.
“It’s very frustrating that the school administration has chosen to protect this one coach, rather than all of us,” said Dana Bandurick, a sophomore from New Hope and last season’s Centennial Conference rookie of the year.
A change in culture?
As an undergraduate, Signor-Brown played basketball for Marymount University in Virginia. She coached at Vassar from 2009 to 2019, logging a winning record of 159-106, according to a bio on Swarthmore’s website.
Swarthmore was looking for a change, said Adam Hertz, former athletic director. The Garnet team hadn’t been to conference playoffs in more than five years, and the school wanted a coach with a new vision and an emphasis on student commitment, he said. Signor-Brown began coaching the 13-member squad in the fall 2019 semester.
“I thought she came in and did exactly what we wanted her to do — start changing the culture of the program,” Hertz said.
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Hertz left Swarthmore in October after 19 years at the college, 17 as athletic director. He declined to discuss why he left, but said it had nothing to do with Signor-Brown’s case.
In an end-of-season survey, some players gave a nod to Signor-Brown’s “principles of fair play and sportsmanship,” according to the provost’s report.
“I finally feel like I’m on a college basketball team,” one wrote. “Practices have been much better,” said another.
But five of eight players who filled out the survey also criticized Signor-Brown’s coaching style. The coach, they said, “put me down … called me a liability,” was “not constructive … [but] hurtful,” and “only gave us negative feedback,” according to the provost’s report.
An invasion of privacy
Several players said they were disturbed after Signor-Brown’s visits to their dorm rooms during which she asked them personal questions.
Erin Cronin, a junior from Chatham, N.J., said the coach sat at her desk, touched her things and asked about her family and whether she was in a relationship. Then, the coach spotted some medication Cronin takes and asked what it was for, she said. Cronin considered it an invasion of her privacy.
“It’s definitely not something I wanted to bring up to my coach,” she said.
Signor-Brown told the college, according to the report, that visiting dorm rooms was a suggestion she got at a Final Four Clinic as a way of getting to know players on their turf. She said no players shared discomfort or resisted the idea at the time.
Swarthmore, however, said the coach showed “questionable judgment” by even suggesting visiting players’ dorm rooms.
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The college also noted that Signor-Brown twice failed to follow orders from Swarthmore officials. The report said the coach showed “serious errors in judgment” by e-mailing and texting players and showing up at a practice once the college’s inquiry was underway. The college had told her to avoid contact with players during the probe.
Swarthmore also faulted Signor-Brown for meeting with prospective players and their families off campus, despite the college’s prohibition on in-person recruiting during COVID-19 without prior approval, the report said.
Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor of sports media at Ithaca College and an expert in social justice issues in sports, saw “a number of red flags” in the coach’s behavior, her decision not to follow orders on recruiting and contact with players being just one.
“None of that spells the kind of mind-set that bodes well,” she said.
Fit to play?
Bandurick said she twice had injuries that the coach encouraged her to play with. The last was a broken elbow. The athletic trainer, she said, recommended that she not play. (The trainer did not return an email or call for comment.) But Signor-Brown continued to pressure her, telling her she played through injuries in college, Bandurick said.
Signor-Brown would “try to guilt me into doing things and then say, ‘well, it’s up to you,’” Bandurick recalled. “I felt very guilty not doing what’s best for the team as a freshman.”
During the last game of the season, Bandurick said the coach asked her again and she went in.
The decision stunned players and parents, who were watching from the stands, several said.
Laura Bandurick said because of the coach’s flouting of rules and “harassing” and “intimidating” behavior, her daughter will not continue to play basketball at Swarthmore if Signor-Brown remains.
“Dana is in fear of seeing the coach,” she wrote in an Oct. 13 email to Swarthmore officials.
Other players also complained that Signor-Brown pushed them to participate when they weren’t feeling well. Cronin said the coach accused her of being out of shape when she was having an asthma attack.
Signor-Brown, according to the college’s report, said she leaves decisions for participation up to individual students regardless of whether they have an injury or an illness.
That struck Noreen Kemether, a parent of a player from Pennington, N.J., as extremely odd. The decision should not be left to an 18 or 19 or 20-year old, said Kemether, who played Division 1 basketball in college for Old Dominion the year the team won the national championship and later for Villanova when the team went to the Final Four. She also has officiated high school basketball for 35 years.
“If someone has not been medically cleared to play, they cannot play,” she said.
Parents said some of Signor-Brown’s behavior was unprofessional.
Kemether said she observed the coach sometimes crouched on the floor during games talking on her cellphone, with her back to the court.
Laura Bandurick said Signor-Brown made derogatory comments about several team members when she and her daughter ran into the coach and her wife at a lunch.
“She stated that her wife could rebound better than some of the girls on the team,” Bandurick wrote in her email to the college. “I found this very unprofessional and very disturbing.”
A mental toll, too
Parents said Signor-Brown’s coaching took a mental toll on their daughters. Kim Cronin, Erin’s mother, wrote an email to Swarthmore officials, titled, “Concern for the Mental Health, Physical Well-Being and Safety of our Daughters.”
“The mental and physical stress and inappropriate behavior they endured on the Swarthmore campus all season by her was abusive and unacceptable,” wrote Cronin, who has coached youth basketball for a decade.
Karinna Papke, a junior from Alexandria, Va., said Signor-Brown consistently disrespected players’ intense academic requirements. She recalls the coach making the team stay to watch the men’s game after they finished their game, despite the players needing to get back to their studies. The men’s team went to the NCAA Division III national championship game in 2019 and was ranked No. 1 in the country in its division when the season was halted last March.
“She said we played so badly and she wanted to watch real basketball,” Papke recalled.
Signor-Brown, according to the report. acknowledged that practices regularly exceeded stated times.
The coach’s pressure was relentless, even at exam time, Cronin said.
“I had to skip eating and showering in order to get to a midterm on time because she wouldn’t let me leave sooner,” she said.
In its report, the college acknowledged that Signor-Brown needed to develop “greater appreciation for the unusual intensity of the academic culture at Swarthmore and demonstrate appreciation for students’ lives outside of athletics.”
The Instagram post, which started the outcry against Signor-Brown at Swarthmore, appeared on a site called VassarSurvivors in July, five months after Swarthmore’s season had ended.
The author, who said she was 21 and a senior on the Vassar squad at the time, said the coach asked her to come to her hotel room and gave her a drink, which led to two or three drinks.
“I was sitting on the bed when she straddled me,” the woman wrote. She said she told the coach “no” several times and finally faked orgasm so the coach would stop.
The coach continued to threaten and harass her after that night, she wrote.
In a three-part series, Swarthmore’s student newspaper, The Phoenix, reported last month that it had spoken to the woman who made the accusation and a friend who “corroborated the timeline of these allegations.” The paper did not name either the accuser or her friend. The newspaper also reported that it spoke to other Vassar players, who alleged “abusive and inappropriate coaching behavior” by Signor-Brown.
Someone who identified themselves as Maeve Sussman, a former Vassar player, posted a comment on a change.org petition, earlier this year, urging Swarthmore to investigate Signor-Brown.
“Playing under this coach for 4 years at Vassar College was one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life,” Sussman wrote.
Vassar declined to comment on specific allegations against Signor-Brown, citing personnel reasons. In the case of the Instagram post, the college said it had reached out to moderators of the page and encouraged authors to report the allegations to the college.
Swarthmore said it reached out to the individual who allegedly posted the account through a third party, but that the individual declined to speak. None of the Swarthmore players alleged sexual misconduct by the coach, according to the provost’s report.
Parents and players said they aren’t satisfied with Swarthmore’s probe.
“For a college that has that reputation and academic prowess, I think they dropped the ball big time on the investigation,” Kemether said.
Team members, who have played basketball for much of their youth, say they are paying the price.
“The administration is telling us we either agree to play basketball under an abusive coach or we drop basketball,” Papke said.
For Papke, the decision is clear.
“I do not want to have contact with this woman ever again,” she said.