Sooners' Sherri Coale apologizes after ex-players say program racially insensitive

Oklahoma women's basketball coach Sherri Coale apologized Sunday after some former Black players wrote on social media over the weekend that they felt there was an atmosphere of racial insensitivity in her program.

On Friday, former Sooners player Gioya Carter responded to a photo of Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley speaking out on police violence in the Black community after the Sooners football team marched in solidarity. Carter, who played at Oklahoma from 2013 to '17, tweeted, "I wish I knew what it felt like to have a head coach at OU like this but instead my 4yrs there was filled with comments like. 'You guys act like it happened to you.' 'If y'alls long braids hits one of my players in the face' as if the ppl in braids weren't her players."

At least eight other former Sooners have since posted messages of support for Carter on social media, with many sharing their own experiences.

Coale and Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione both released statements Sunday night.

"To hear the concerns raised by my former student-athletes is disheartening, because it is clear that I have unknowingly caused harm to people I care deeply about," said Coale, who is white. "Over my career, I have taken pride in the work that I have done on the court and the commitment to the personal growth of the women I've been responsible for leading. While I have always had the intent of expressing care for others, it is clear that there have been moments where my intent has not been the same as my impact -- for that, I sincerely apologize."

Coale, 55, has been the Sooners' coach since the 1996-97 season, and has led Oklahoma to the Women's Final Four three times (2002, '09 and '10). Under Coale, Oklahoma has won six Big 12 regular-season titles and four conference tournament titles.

The Sooners' 19-year run of NCAA tournament appearances ended in 2019 after they finished 8-22. This past season, Oklahoma went 12-18. Those losing records were the first for Coale since her first two seasons at the school.

"When these matters were raised by former members of the women's basketball program, we were obviously concerned," Castiglione said. "Though we were unaware of the reported concerns of insensitivity in the women's basketball program prior to the comments that were posted in the last few days, we are committed to listening.

"Throughout her 24 years of collegiate coaching, Coach Coale has demonstrated tremendous character and a consistent record of advocating for her student-athletes. I know Coach Coale -- along with the rest of the women's basketball program leadership -- joins me in eagerly availing ourselves to further engage in these important conversations."

Former Sooner Shaina Pellington, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2018 who transferred to Arizona in 2019, posted a lengthy message on Twitter on Sunday saying she would "not stay silent."

"So many of us student athletes fear to speak our minds on the injustices we face within our respective communities, campuses, locker rooms, etc.," Pellington wrote. "You ask us things like, why didn't we say anything sooner? Why didn't we speak up when we had the chance? Why, NOW? We fear for our futures, we fear for our life's work because of the backlash we might face from the people of higher power. We tell you guys our stories and you don't believe us."

Another former Sooner who transferred from the program after two seasons spoke to ESPN on condition of anonymity. She said she did not want to harm Coale or her career, but feels that she lacks some understanding of Black culture. The player told of a visit the Oklahoma team made to the Monticello plantation when the Sooners were playing in Charlottesville, Virginia. She said she and a Black teammate were discussing the former slave quarters at Thomas Jefferson's home, and then posted a photo of it on social media. She said Coale wanted the post removed.

"How could she yell at me for something like this when she took us there?" the player said. "It was all very crushing for me that people that looked like me went through this. How could she not see the difference of perception that there was by taking your mainly Black basketball team to a plantation? She is a great speaker and a good ball coach, but her program needs reform."

In her statement, Coale said, "For several years, I've made a concerted effort to educate myself and my players about how we can, together, create and sustain an environment in which all feel welcome and at home -- a part of our women's basketball family. While our past and present efforts in support of inclusion are ones I am proud of, I also know I should not assume that our learning and growth is ever finished.

"I am committed to working with my staff and my players toward continual growth. I want to ensure that any of my words or actions reflect my values, and the love I have for my student-athletes is shown in the knowledge I impart on them every day."

Chelsea Dungee, who played her freshman season at Oklahoma before transferring to Arkansas, tweeted Sunday, "This is not a political issue for those who seem to be confused. Instead, this is an issue regarding lack of support, racism, inequalities, lack of effective communication, abuse of power, and choice."

Former Oklahoma player LaNesia Williams, who was with the Sooners from 2014 to '18, wrote in a Facebook post directed at other players: "What's so evident is the division amongst us in all of this, and it's truly disheartening to see it show at a time like this. It's interesting that the white players share a completely different experience than the Black players.

"The funny thing about it is that you say all those great things to back her but not one of you are able to say that you have witnessed her support her Black student athletes on issues of racial injustice that affect us and our livelihood every single day. That's what this is about at the end of the day. It's about choosing to turn a blind eye to Black issues and choosing to remain ignorant on racial issues and Black life. Choosing not to get involved when players that you claim to love are steadily suffering. Loving us until it's time to get 'uncomfortable.'"

Morgan Coale, who played at Oklahoma and is now married to Sherri's son, defended the coach in a Facebook post Sunday night, writing, "The Sherri Coale I know is there for her players beyond basketball. Even when she is no longer coaching them she has reached out and gotten them job interviews, or a foot in the door with a dream profession and even helping out with families of her former players in any way she can."

She concluded the post, "I stand with Sherri Coale."

Similarly, former Sooners player Madeline Manning wrote that Sherri Coale "challenged me, showed me, pushed me, held me accountable, and loved me into developing a standard of excellence. It wasn't easy. It took work. Lots of work. But as I navigate through life I often find myself still thanking Sherri Coale. My path was altered for the better because of her heart."

Vionise Pierre-Louis, who finished her OU career in 2018, wrote on Facebook, "You can't stand for a movement like BLM yet praise/defend an offender and negate African American's experience. Listen. Learn. Lend a hand to help. Or just shut up please."

Castiglione said student-athletes at Oklahoma have multiple ways to discuss issues that concern them.

"We have avenues through which student-athletes can converse with coaches, administrators or confidentially and anonymously with our team of sports psychologists any time they want to bring a concern to our attention," he said, "and we actively seek their input. My hope is that we can move forward and work together in building greater understanding as we constantly strive to be better."