Hall of Famer Cynthia Cooper-Dyke accused by former players of abusive behavior, using demeaning sexual language

·7 min read

Editor's note: This story contains descriptions of abuse, language of a sexual nature and references to suicide.

Women's basketball icon and former Texas Southern coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke used abusive and sexual language, endangered players' physical and mental health with excessive punishments, and avoided a Title IX hearing on complaints by retiring ahead of it, The Athletic reported Thursday. It reportedly followed a pattern of Cooper-Dyke leaving programs for other jobs after allegations were made to school administrators.

The Athletic's Chantel Jennings and Dana O'Neil detail more than a decade of alleged abuse during Cooper-Dyke's time coaching at Prairie View A&M, UNC-Wilmington, Texas Southern, USC, and again at Texas Southern where she retired in March. The announcement was made March 17, the day before the NCAA women's basketball tournament was set to tip the first round of action. Texas Southern praised her work and wished her success in the future.

It did not mention that the four-time WNBA champion and Naismith Hall of Famer was scheduled to attend a Title IX hearing on April 6 to investigate allegations of abusive behavior, per The Athletic. That hearing was cancelled because, per Texas Southern policy, a complaint can be dismissed if "the Respondent is no longer enrolled or employed by the University.’’

The university was set to introduce new basketball coach Vernette Skeete, who most recently worked as an assistant for Gary Blair at Texas A&M, on Thursday morning. Texas Southern announced late Tuesday night it was postponed. It did not give a reason.

The Title IX hearing was the culmination of months of alleged behind-the-scenes actions by Texas Southern personnel to protect the women's basketball team. On Jan. 20, the school reportedly issued a limited-contact order stipulating players could not have one-on-one meetings or communicate in any way with the coach as the school went through a "safety-risk assessment." On Feb. 16, it was reportedly extended to include assistants and prohibited any contact outside of strictly scheduled practices and games.

Cynthia Cooper-Dyke
Cynthia Cooper-Dyke allegedly used inappropriate sexual language while coaching at UNC-Wilmington, USC and Texas Southern. (Photo by David Dennis/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Allegations of abuse against Cooper-Dyke

Cooper-Dyke reportedly used vulgar and sexual remarks consistently when talking to players, per The Athletic. Many players found it inappropriate, demeaning and degrading.

Some alleged incidents included in The Athletic report:

  • Cooper-Dyke was told one of her Texas Southern players who had a previously known mental health diagnosis was depressed and said, "No, she will be all right, she just needs some d***, that’s all." She called the same player a "sorry-ass virgin."

  • In a different instance during 21-22, she told a staffer who made a suggestion, "Get the f*** out of my gym, go home. You’re a sorry-ass bitch. You’re a nobody."

  • While a player was doing squats, Cooper-Dyke came up behind her and said, "Ooh, your hips are big, you got a fat ass and I can tell you like to ride some d***."

  • At UNC-Wilmington in 2010-11, she would say "wet, wet" after a shot was made and then motion to a player adding, "I bet that’s what [name redacted] was last night."

  • At Texas Southern in 2012-13, a male assistant complained of having no social life because of early practices. Cooper-Dyke "proceeds to get in front of him on her knees and pretty much act like she’s giving him oral sex," a player said.

  • When one player was slow running a drill, Cooper-Dyke told the team it was because she was "getting d***ed down" all the time.

  • At most schools where she coached she called at least one play "hot sex" and often called players "retarded," "Black-ass child," "bitch," "p****" and "dumbass." She also pressured players to practice despite not being cleared by doctors after injury.

A player at USC, where Cooper-Dyke won two national titles as a player, told The Athletic the coach "mentally and emotionally terrorized us." Players said she ruined basketball for them and they bonded together to "protect each other's sanity."

One player with the USC program told The Athletic:

“I was a mess and not a day went by that I didn’t think about taking my life and even had an idea to do it at Cynthia’s house so she could understand what a devastating impact she had on me.’’

Cooper-Dyke, who turned 59 a week after the scheduled Title IX hearing, was able go from school to school without any allegations coming to light, per the report. Each announcement included words like "tremendous impact" and "real good shape to continue our goals" while wishing the coach the best. Even while school officials reportedly knew of serious issues.

Cooper's 'GOAT' status impacted complaints

Many of the players The Athletic spoke to cited Cooper-Dyke's standing in the sport as the reason they didn't come forward or tell anyone about their experiences. A former USC player said she wrote a letter about all of the transgressions she saw and experienced, but never planned to do anything with the letter.

"How could I?" she said, via The Athletic. "She's Cynthia Cooper. She's goated — the GOAT. And I'm me."

Cooper-Dyke (then using her birth name, Cynthia Cooper) won two national titles at USC and was a four-time Finals MVP (1997-2000) for the iconic and dynastic Houston Comets franchise. She also has an Olympic medal in the trophy case and was named to last year's "The W25" list for the WNBA's 25 greatest players in history. She is one of 10 women's players to have a signature shoe and players she coached grew up hearing of her as a legend.

From 'hero' to 'manipulator'

Julia Finlay, then a rising junior at UNC-Wilmington in 2010 who watched the WNBA star growing up, said she gasped when the Hall of Famer entered the room for a coaching interview Finlay was asked to participate in. Per The Athletic, she and a teammate "practically begged" to hire Cooper-Dyke.

Finlay's views changed amid alleged emotional and verbal abuse that included the coaching staff designing a punishment drill in which she did log rolls the length of the court over and over for 20 minutes, per the report. She repeatedly puked and experienced skin scraping off her knees and shoulders. A reporter for the Wilmington Star-News happened to be in the gym and reported on it. It was largely swept under the rug and Cooper-Dyke reportedly had teammates choose her or Finlay, citing the player as the problem.

Finlay quit before the season started and told The Athletic she was "extremely suicidal at that point. All I wanted was to play basketball and to have her like me. She’s my hero.’’ She said Cooper-Dyke manipulated her into losing confidence.

"There’s a quote I think of when I think of her," Finlay told The Athletic. "'If you don’t transform trauma, you will transmit it.'"

Harassment in coaching

The Athletic pulled information from Cooper-Dyke's book, "She Got Game: My Personal Odyssey," to detail her childhood struggles and views on life and basketball. Jennings and O'Neil include a run-in Cooper-Dyke wrote of in her book while playing in Italy. A coach didn't like the player's constant need for information and would shout "shut up" increasingly louder at her, it said.

Via The Athletic:

She confronted him, thinking he didn’t understand the negative tone of the wording. Instead, he used it again and when she sassed back at him, he sometimes threw her out of practice.

At USC, players recalled that Cooper-Dyke similarly sometimes responded to questions from players or her assistant coaches with "shut the f*** up." In the middle of some games, she sometimes shouted them down with lines such as: "Do you think you’re smarter than me?"

The allegations against Cooper-Dyke might be the highest profile because of her name and status, but they are far from the first to come up.

The list includes allegations of toxic mistreatment by women's basketball coach Cameron Newbauer at Florida that were made public last October. Newbauer resigned due to "personal reasons" months prior in July. Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman issued his resignation last August less than a week after meeting with investigators looking into allegations of harassment and abuse. Twelve Orange players had entered the transfer portal, triggering questions about the program.

The NWSL is still reckoning with alleged abuse by coaches within its ranks. The abuse had reportedly been going on for years and even decades spanning different leagues and levels in some cases. They were able to move to different players, including upward mobility, even as people in power knew of the allegations.