Detroit Mercy women's hoops suspends season amid allegations of abuse by coach

Detroit Mercy has suspended the rest of its women's basketball season, the school announced Thursday.

The decision was made after the parents of all the players sent a letter to school administrators alleging abuse by head coach AnnMarie Gilbert in her first season at the school.

The letter, a copy of which was printed by the Detroit Free Press, said that the parents had gotten together on a Zoom call to discuss the experiences of their daughters.

"It has become painfully obvious that our young women are suffering emotional, mental and physical abuse under the leadership of their head coach," the letter said. "In addition, those of us who are former collegiate athletes and/or coaches are clearly aware there are possible NCAA violations being committed."

Gilbert has not responded to a request for comment by ESPN. Detroit Mercy is 1-13 this season and last played Saturday in a 71-61 loss to Oakland.

A parent of one of the players, who spoke to ESPN on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal against her daughter, said the players were disappointed the season was canceled. She said the players met with athletic director Robert Vowels earlier this week and told him they wanted to keep playing, but not for Gilbert. The parent said the players received an email from Vowels on Thursday morning telling them that their season was canceled.

"They were shocked to see that email," the parent said.

Vowels released a statement Thursday, saying in part: "The health and well-being of our student-athletes is our athletic department's top priority. We have talked with all players and members of our women's basketball program about their concerns. We take them very seriously and will continue to review them closely."

The statement went on to add, "As we have prioritized the needs of our student-athletes during this challenging academic year, we have decided to suspend the 2020-21 women's basketball season."

The parent said she felt red flags started to show during the summer, but that being from an athletic background herself, she was willing to at first give Gilbert the benefit of the doubt as just being a "tough" coach. But as incidents continued, she said she became concerned for the welfare of her daughter and others on the team.

"Even during games, they would hear things like, 'How did I inherit this sorry team? I can't wait to get rid of all these players,'" the parent said. "There was a lot of emotionally toxic stuff. My child just fell in my arms, sobbing from what she had been through. One of the girls said, 'Every time I get in my car, I think of crashing it so I can be injured and not have to deal with this.'

"They were told by their coach that they were weak-minded if they reached out to their parents about anything, because they were grown-ups."

The parent also spoke in detail about the allegations that were in the letter she and other parents sent to the school. According to the letter, the parents alleged that Gilbert, who was hired in April 2020, asked players to exceed the 20 hours of countable athletically related activities, has tried to dissuade them from reporting injuries or illness and pushed them to compete even when hurt. The parents also alleged that she referred to the players as "cowards" and acted unprofessionally toward her assistant coaches.

Another parent who signed the letter, Shakela Webb, is the mother of player Kaela Webb, whose father, Tim Webb, is an assistant coach for Gilbert. The letter alleged Tim Webb and other assistants were "humiliated and harassed in front of players" by Gilbert.

The parent who spoke to ESPN said the players are now in limbo. They didn't want their season ended and most don't want to transfer. But she said they all told Vowels that if Gilbert remained the coach, they would not play for the team next season.

Gilbert started her head-coaching career in 1994 at Division III Oberlin, her alma mater. From 2002 to 2007, she was an assistant at Michigan State under Joanne P. McCallie. When McCallie left for Duke, Gilbert took over as head coach of Eastern Michigan, where she was cited for NCAA violations and resigned in 2012. She was given a two-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA.

From 2016 to 2020, Gilbert was head coach at Division II Virginia Union, where she won at least 23 games all five seasons and led the team to the national championship game in 2017.