Utah women's basketball team forced to change hotel after 'racist hate crime'

The Utah women's basketball team checked into a luxurious lakefront resort in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, last Thursday ahead of its first NCAA tournament game.

The next morning, the NCAA was desperately trying to find alternative accommodations for the Utes after they became victims of a series of “racial hate crimes,” as coach Lynne Roberts described them.

Roberts did not reveal what happened until after Utah's season ended with a 77-66 second-round loss to Gonzaga in Spokane on Monday night. The Utah coach described the incidents as “shocking” and said “nobody knew how to handle it.”

“It was really upsetting,” Roberts said. “The fact that our players and staff don't feel safe in an NCAA tournament environment is really bad.”

Utah provided more details about what its women's basketball team endured Tuesday night in a joint statement from Roberts, athletic director Mark Harlan and assistant athletic director Charmelle Greene. The statement said that “a vehicle drove by and the occupants yelled racial slurs at the basketball team and the rest of Utah's traveling party” as they walked from the hotel to a restaurant in Coeur d'Alene for dinner.

The Utah group ate dinner, but faced a similar situation upon leaving the restaurant. A vehicle, according to the Utah statement, drove slowly past the group, “revving its engine while the occupants again shouted racially derogatory words and threats.”

“As one can imagine, many students, staff and other members of the traveling party were deeply disturbed and frightened following the incidents, even though this should have been a safe and enjoyable experience,” Utah's statement said. “Out of concern for their well-being and safety, we worked with Gonzaga and the NCAA to relocate to alternative housing in Spokane.”

Tony Stewart, an official with the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, told Yahoo Sports that Utah's version of events was consistent with what he had heard from Coeur d'Alene resort executives and other third-party sources. The truck that first harassed the team had a Confederate flag on it, according to Stewart. When the team left the restaurant, Stewart said, the same driver “was still there, but he had recruited backup.”

“It's very clear what they were up to,” Stewart said. “They are bigoted racists and they want to drive out minorities.”

Coeur d'Alene officials held a press conference Tuesday morning to address the racism allegations. Mayor Jim Hammond directly apologized “to the young women who endured racist abuse during their visit,” adding that incidents like this “should never happen” and are “completely unacceptable.”

Coeur d'Alene Police Chief Lee White said his department was contacted at 10 p.m. Thursday night about an incident that occurred four hours earlier. Coeur d'Alene police are trying to speak with the victims, obtain video of the incident and locate the individuals who yelled the racial slurs.

“Until we speak to the victims of this incident and other witnesses,” White said, “it is difficult for us to determine whether a state or federal crime has been committed.”

The Utah women's team had originally stayed at the Coeur d'Alene Resort, over 30 miles east of Spokane, due to limited hotel capacity in Spokane. Spokane was slated to host the first and second rounds of the men's NCAA tournament, meaning hotel rooms for those eight teams were reserved well in advance.

Some of those blocks were released last Friday when the first men's teams left Spokane. A source familiar with the situation told Yahoo Sports that Gonzaga and the NCAA have worked to keep those blocks open and have offered them to Utah and UC Irvine, the other women's team remaining in Coeur d'Alene.

“We also requested the move for the well-being and safety of our student-athletes and the entire traveling party,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, ​​UC Irvine’s associate vice chancellor.

The NCAA issued a statement later Tuesday condemning “racism and hate in any form” and being “devastated by the Utah team's experience.” When asked if the NCAA would continue to hold events in Spokane or allow teams to be hosted in Coeur d'Alene, an NCAA spokesperson did not respond.

Utah's joint statement said the school was “very disappointed with the decision to house our team in hotels so far from the competition site in another state.”

“We will work with NCAA leadership to clarify that the long distance from the venue was unacceptable and contributed to the impact of this incident,” Utah's statement said.

Gonzaga also condemned the incidentsand stated that the safety and well-being of NCAA tournament participants was the top priority.

“We are frustrated and deeply saddened that what was always intended to be a great visitor and championship experience has been in any way compromised by this situation,” Gonzaga said in a statement.

Gonzaga had previously organized police escorts, the source familiar with the situation added, to ensure Utah's travel time from Coeur d'Alene to the arena in Spokane did not exceed the maximum allowed time of 30 minutes. The police escorts continued after Utah moved to a hotel in Spokane, according to the source.

Roberts told reporters that the strains on her team made it difficult for Utah players to focus on their games against South Dakota State and Gonzaga.

“It was a distraction, annoying and unfortunate,” she said. “This should be a positive for everyone involved. This should be a joyous time for our program. To have that experience somehow overshadowed is unfortunate.”