“It’s important that we share our experiences with other people. Your story will heal you and your story will heal somebody else. When you tell your story you free yourself and give other people permission to acknowledge their own story.” - Iyanla Vanzant
Fordham University has always encouraged students to be "bothered by injustice" and to not only recognize the pain but to lead with action. While I've always been hesitant to share my story regarding my experience on the Fordham Women's Basketball team, it's imperative that my courage outweighs my need for privacy in hopes that this can help or inform someone in some fashion.
My parents placed a basketball in my hands before I was in kindergarten. Growing up in Oakland, California, the dichotomy between the have’s and the have-nots were always apparent. At a young age, I knew my future was riding on obtaining a scholarship to be able to attend a distinguished institution. Basketball was going to be my ticket to a brighter future. From countless hours of practice to endless AAU road trips, in retrospect, my parents made tons of sacrifices and were paramount in helping me achieve my ultimate goal. I was not willing to settle for anything less than a Division-1 scholarship. I had no other option. Books. Basketball. Repeat.
By the time I was a junior in high school, I was offered a full ride to a few Division-1 basketball programs. I decided to commit to Fordham University in New York City. I knew Fordham was an exceptional school and also figured by being in the Big Apple I would have tremendous networking opportunities regardless of my chosen career path. The relationship I built with the then-head coach over the years solidified my decision. I realized my dream and was ready to head to the east coast!
During my senior year of high school, the then-head coach from Fordham called me in the middle of a school day. From the first “hello” I could tell from her tone of voice, that this wasn’t a routine check-in call. She informed me that she was no longer going to be the head coach at Fordham and that another coach was going to be taking over the program. She told me I had two options, I could still attend Fordham or renege on my initial commitment and attend another school. My heart sank. It was too late in the recruiting process to even attempt to make a last-minute change.
Despite the news, I was still thrilled to be heading off to Fordham that summer. Before stepping foot onto campus the new coach did not reach out to introduce herself. When I did arrive, I finally met the new coaching staff. In the initial meeting, instead of discussing basketball or what I was going to study, the head coach commented on my appearance. She mentioned, “Oh, you’re really pretty.” As a basketball player, that’s not something you want to hear. Being “pretty” didn’t equate to what I was there to do. She also stated, "It's not fair... I didn't choose you and you didn't choose me." I was extremely concerned for my future fate after just the first meeting. The remarks made did not seem like a coach that would be supportive in helping me build my future and reach my potential. She made it clear that I was "inherited". She wasn't interested in getting to know me as a person nor what I could do on the court. After a lackluster start, I had a premonition of impending disaster.
I will not go into detail about every situation but here’s a brief rundown of some of the incidents that transpired while on the team:
We practiced for an hour, lifted for an hour, conditioned for an hour and we were scolded if we did not attend the “optional” individual workouts. This far exceeds NCAA athletic time regulations.
I was reprimanded for missing a team scavenger hunt due to a mandatory excursion I had for class despite reminding the coaching staff multiple times.
During an away game I was the only player to not have the correct color jersey in my locker which resulted in me not being able to play (the staff put out your uniform every game day).
Prior to a film session, coach went player by player and verbally attacked each individual regarding how she perceived their character or their appearance.
Out of the blue mid-season, I was forced to quickly sign a letter before getting onto the bus for an away game. She mailed this letter to my parents threatening to take away my scholarship for no apparent reason.
The coach had the team captains hold a meeting with everyone but my roommate (another recruit from the previous head coach). She wanted to take a poll from the team to vote if players felt like my roommate was a distraction. I was perplexed. I never viewed this player as a distraction. She later questioned the captains asking why I, in particular, did not say anything since this was my roommate. I firmly believed it should not be up to any of the players to make a decision regarding someone else's future. It felt like a bad game of the TV show "Survivor", except this was someone's future. Mid-season coach prohibited the player from attending practice or playing in any more games. I saw the negative results this had on my friend immediately that lasted well into her adult life.
I had an “attitude adjustment” the day of an away game where she had an assistant coach make me run sprints at 5 am on the hotel treadmill until I turned purple.
A player openly told me, "I'm sorry I'm getting more minutes than you. You're better than me. I don't know why coach isn't playing you more than me."
Coach openly told the players she personally recruited her main objective for the year was to get all of the recruits from the previous coach off of the team. There were 5 of us in total. 4 players left the team that year. I did not know this until the damage was already done.
The Mid-Season Letter from Coach
At 18 years old, I tried to handle the situation in the best way that I knew how. I remained poised and never spoke out due to fear of losing my scholarship completely. This was not a matter of "tough love" or building mental fortitude, this was tearing someone down. Unfortunately, when people in positions of power exploit that power continuously, you begin to question if saying something will even make a difference. As a student-athlete who constantly had their scholarship dangled over their head, it was in my best interest to succumb to the constant hatred that was spewed my way in hopes of somehow hanging onto the one thing I had fought so hard to obtain.
By the end of the season, coach tried to take away my scholarship. She scheduled multiple end-of-the-year meetings with the Athletic Department. My mom wasn’t going to let me enter this fight alone. She demanded to be conference called into each one. After countless hours of debate, my mom saved my scholarship by having to mention team gossip regarding the coaching staff that I didn't even know she was aware of. Fordham eventually told me I could no longer play on the basketball team for my remaining 3 years, but I could keep my scholarship if I worked as many hours as an athlete practiced or I could just transfer. Not having a ton of game film from that year made nearly impossible for me to transfer to a college I thought had a similar or better academic reputation. For this reason, I decided I was going to tough it out, stop playing basketball, and graduate from Fordham.
Coach tried everything under the sun behind the scenes to get me to transfer even after I was no longer allowed to play. The Athletic Department told me prior to leaving that year upon my return I could select a job that aligned with my major. When I showed up to tell them what job within the University I’d like, the Athletic Department told me I actually did not have a choice. I had to work in the Equipment Room. I had no clue this would mean I would be washing the jerseys I once played in. There were a few times I was forced to go into the football locker room alone. Talk about trying to play mind games with a young woman to give up her scholarship. Not only was my safety at risk, but the lasting effect of what that did to my confidence is indescribable. Luckily, I was able to somehow continue on for the next 3 years and focus on school, despite the shame.
My heart breaks knowing that situations similar to mine continued to happen for years to come. From being forced to play with serious injuries or having to deal with long-term effects of mental abuse, countless players had strikingly similar stories and no one realized it until a few players began to speak up.
With everything that ensued, there was an open investigation beginning in January of 2022. If players were willing, we had individual meetings recalling events from our personal experiences. For me the hours recollecting what transpired felt heavy. Throughout the duration of the call, I cried then I got furious by the end. How in the hell was she still able to have a coaching job? Recalling each event in detail was like telling someone a nightmare you never wanted to relive. By spring of 2022, there had been no updates. Only after someone took matters into their own hands to pursue legal action, was the coach removed. Make no mistake, the articles that are currently being published are stating the coach “left”. This is not an amicable parting. Coach Stephanie Gaitley shattered confidence and instilled fear in many young women. These actions are unforgivable and inexcusable.
Although I’m blessed to be able to find the lessons in the chaos, I understand how countless others may never be able to recover from the hardship that they faced during such a transformative time in their young adult lives. Numerous players dealt and are currently dealing with lingering anxiety and depression. Each player has coped in their own way including eating disorders, continuous therapy, or simply trying to find solace in the fact that they aren't alone when dealing with how they were tainted by the experience. This ultimately begs the question: How can universities hold people in power accountable expeditiously instead of kicking the can down the road until action must be taken solely to save face?
To this day I’m still working on dismantling cognitive distortions and lingering negative core beliefs I have of myself from this catastrophic chain of events and replacing them with what I now know to be true. Even though I still have work to do, I’m proud of the woman that I’m becoming. I was fortunate enough to be able to ultimately grow from it all. Dealing with this at such a pivotal young age taught me that you are as resilient as you think you are! Even if coach tried to break my spirit, she never prevailed.
To budding student-athletes or parents of student-athletes - do extensive research before committing to a program. You have the right to ask as many questions as you need to. Playing any sport at a high-level is a business. The administration will treat it as a business, and so should you. Always do your due diligence. When you think you've covered all basis, confirm once more.
Moving forward, I hope by sharing my story it will encourage others to share theirs. By telling your story, you never know who you could be helping. Trust your intuition. Lead with action. Impact with grace.
Ciao for now,
P.S. You can read my dear friend and former teammate's blog HERE
Update: Numerous players who played for coach previously have reached out to me privately informing me they had the same experience. From recent grads to players who graduated 10+ years prior to me, you are not alone and are stronger than you know!
For people inquiring about specific questions to ask before committing to a program, here are a few questions to consider and also tactical steps you can take to protect yourself:
How long does the coach intend to be at the program? Is the athletic department pleased with their overall performance?
If the coach was released from a program before, what were the specific circumstances? Why did the university choose to re-hire them?
What is the graduation rate for the coach?
In the past, has the coach revoked or tried to revoke anyone's scholarship? What was the reasoning?
If there's ever a conflict of scheduling between school and athletic obligations, what does the coach believe comes first? Why? This will speak volumes about what they value.
How will the coach support you on and off of the court? Will they meet with you to help you progress throughout the duration of your time within the program or only meet with you for disciplinary reasons?
What do previous players say about their experience with the coach and overall program?
What are the team standards if different from the universities?
How long have the assistants been with the program? Is there a high turnover rate within the program's staff? Aside from career growth, this may indicate a larger issue at hand.
Google the coach's name but click over to "news" to see what has been published about the coach. Also, search their name across all social media platforms.
If they try to pressure you to commit on the spot, let them know you appreciate their urgency but you want to wait until you take all official visits before deciding. If the coach values you, they will wait for you to make a fully informed decision.
On visits to the school, make sure you pay attention to details. Do people seem genuinely happy to be there or does it feel more like a facade just for your visit?
If there's ever a major complaint and you need to inform the athletic department, will you be protected after the given feedback? How confidential is your feedback?
If you ever feel like something is off, it's ok to tell someone you trust. Don't be embarrassed if you think you've made a wrong decision or something has gone awry. No one can help you if no one knows.