There is a deep, dark, hidden secret that lies within the women's basketball program at Northern Kentucky University which has been swept under the rug by the athletic department for three years.
"The mission of NKU Athletics is to advance the University's vision while focusing on the wellbeing of our student-athletes as we prepare and empower each of them for academic and competitive success at NKU and beyond." This is quoted right from the NKU Athletic Department's Mission Statement, but apparently, this doesn't apply to the student athlete's mental well-being.
Emotional abuse is defined as any abusive behavior that isn't physical, which may include verbal aggression, intimidation, manipulation, and humiliation, which most often unfolds as a pattern of behavior over time that aims to diminish another person's identity, dignity, and self-worth, and which often results in anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts or behaviors (Crisistextline.org).
Northern Kentucky University's athletic department seems to be willing to do anything to silence the multiple emotional abuse allegations against current women's basketball coach, Camryn Whitaker.
Now let me be clear: There is a difference between yelling and degrading.
Every student-athlete has been yelled at. That is not the issue here. The issue is that this coach is making it personal by bullying and emotionally abusing some of her players behind closed doors. This does not apply to all of the players on the team. She certainly has her favorites, but a few of the others seem to be "chosen" to be her emotional "punching bags" each year, and I have been one of them from the first day Camryn Whitaker stepped onto the court for our first practice in June 2016.
Intimidation. A lot of coaches at the college level are intimidating.
There is a level of power that coaches possess that makes them intimidating to players on some scale, but this coach is different. For three years, a few of my teammates and I were so afraid of her to the point where practice was dreaded. We didn't know what mood she was going to be in. We didn't want to be in the same room alone with her for fear that she would degrade us, as she normally would:
"You're sucking the life out of me!"
"You're a poor captain!"
"Do you even have a brain?"
"I don't have a place for you on this team!"
"You have no idea what 'mean' looks like! I can show you mean!"
"You think you're smarter than me!"
"The only reason your parents are yelling in the stands is because you are telling them something."
"I am the boss and there is nothing you can do about it!"
"I can take your scholarship away!"
And the list goes on. These verbal attacks were mostly behind closed doors, in her office, on what she liked to call the "crying couch" where it was your word against hers. Where she could get you alone and tear you apart. These meetings were mostly done weekly and before games, so you were so messed up from your beat-up-session that you couldn't possibly play well by game time.
Personal attacks on your family, personality, work ethic, and body physique were also not uncommon.
Questioning my own self-worth became a huge struggle for me.
This woman is telling me that I am basically nothing: that I am lazy, not a good leader, that I suck the life out of people — maybe I was?
It became hard to sleep. I would cry a lot, sometimes for no reason. I was anxious all the time and it increased significantly if I was in the same building as Coach Whitaker. What used to be joy and passion quickly became fear and numbness as I stepped into practice. Basketball became something that I no longer loved but associated with being emotionally abused.
Coach Whitaker wanted it to be known that she was in charge. She required that players AND the assistant coaches called her "ma'am." Responses like "yes ma'am" or "no ma'am" were required. This included over text messages as well.
Those of us who didn't get as much playing time as the favorite players were told, "Some of you have shorter leashes than the others. I'm sorry, but that's just the way it is!" What she meant by this, is that we were not allowed to make a mistake out on the court, and if we did, we would be pulled out of the game immediately.
She stole our confidence by doing this. Aren't coaches supposed to encourage their players?
How are we supposed to develop into better players if we're not allowed to make mistakes and learn to work through them? Those with the "longer leashes" were allowed to have multiple turnovers and missed shots and still stay in the game. And the "leash" reference makes us sound like we were animals that she could control.
Manipulation. Coach Whitaker would do anything to make you feel isolated from the rest of the team.
On multiple occasions she would warn players not to hang out with other players, calling those players "negative" or saying that "they weren't in a good place." These players were the ones that were not shy about their dislike of Coach Whitaker.
One example was Reece Munger, who refused to meet with Coach Whitaker without her parents present because the subject being talked about was a serious one (this was also after multiple one-on-one meetings that had not gone well, refer back to Intimidation).
This infuriated Coach Whitaker, and since this happened on game day, she forbid Reece from coming to shoot around before the game, the game itself, and in the locker room and proceeded to tell the other players that Reece was a "f****** bad friend and teammate."
Another example, on multiple occasions, former player Kasey Uetrecht, who was a junior at the time, was told not to associate with fellow teammate Shar'rae Davis because "misery loves company." When Kasey and Shar'rae were spotted sitting next to each other on the bus in the middle of a four-game road trip, Kasey was again reprimanded and played only a few minutes in the game.
Shar'rae did not play at all and was forced to sit alone at the end of the bench. Word quickly spread that if you associated with Shar'rae, then your playing time would diminish and you would face the wrath of Coach Whitaker. Shar'rae sat alone on the bus, in the restaurant, and was even moved into her own hotel room when everyone else had a roommate.
She was completely isolated from the team. Coach Whitaker told one teammate, "I would rather lose than play Shar'rae." When we got to the next hotel, Coach Whitaker was harassing Kasey about comforting Shar'rae after the last game, she had finally had enough and called her parents to come and pick her up from the team's hotel in Michigan and take her home.
She said, "I felt like I was out of options. It no longer was about basketball, but it was personal. I just didn't have any fight left. I don't know how else to describe it other than being toxic." In order to keep this player from going to the media, the athletic department gave her a full scholarship for her senior year even though she would never step foot on the court again.
Coach Whitaker would also punish us for something our parents did or said during a game. If she looked up into the stands and made eye contact with a parent and that parent was staring back at her with a look that she took as negative, she'd call us into the office and ask us what was going on with our parents.
She told us that we shouldn't talk to our parents during the season. She told a former player that she wasn't playing because of her dad. Another player was told, "If your parents don't get on board with what I'm doing, then you don't have a place on this team next year."
Since when were parents such a vital part of a collegiate basketball team? Trying to find the balance between my relationship with my parents and with Coach Whitaker was made extremely difficult.
Humiliation. Making you feel small and insignificant is how she gained control over some of her players.
One example was during a practice in 2016. One of my former teammates, who has Crohn's disease, on many occasions would have to leave practice to use the bathroom.
This would make Coach Whitaker become extremely irritated, and she would roll her eyes or make a rude comment.
On this particular day, this player fled to the bathroom during practice and Coach Whitaker immediately blew her whistle and demanded that we all get on the line. While yelling into the hallway where the restrooms were, she informed the team and the player in the restroom that the rest of the team was going to run sprints until she returned back onto the floor.
And boy, did we ever! Coach Whitaker would also consistently comment to this player, in front of her teammates, that her eating habits were the cause of these flare-ups.
Humiliation and degradation.
Another example of the humiliation Coach Whitaker loved to dish out happened just last summer when we were moving the freshmen into the dorm for summer workouts. I was standing outside the dorm talking to the freshmen and their parents when all of a sudden Coach Whitaker came up behind me and kicked my knees out from under me, knocking me to the ground.
I was in shock and searched for an explanation for this behavior, but all she did was laugh and walk away. She did this knowing that I have a spine condition that kept me out of my first year of basketball at NKU, but that didn't stop her from knocking me to the ground, risking an injury and humiliating me in front of everyone.
Many players have felt powerless while under Coach Whitaker. Complaints have fallen on deaf ears when multiple players have approached the athletic director about the coach's behavior. A few have even met with the school's Title IX director after meeting with the athletic director produced no results. Nothing changed in the coach's behavior, so everything seemed to be swept under the rug to protect the coach and the university.
Clearly, they know this kind of behavior is bad, so why do they continue to protect her and even extend her contract? Well, is she winning? No. If you know anything about NKU Women's basketball, you would know that the women's program had not had a losing season since the 1982-1983 season until Camryn Whitaker took over the program.
Even in our transition from Division II to Division I, we still had winning records. Let me throw some numbers at you: in three years Coach Whitaker has compiled a 29-62 record, the worst in program history. Eight players have either quit or transferred and two coaches have left the program. She treats players as if they are disposable.
To Coach Whitaker, I was disposable.
I ended my basketball career a year early at NKU, but it wasn't my idea. The week after spring break last year, Coach Whitaker called me into a meeting with her and the academic advisor. She informed me that she doesn't think she would honor my fifth year of eligibility. She told me that whether she honored it or not depended on the coming season and how things went.
This put me in a terrible place because if she did not honor my fifth year at the end of the season, I would be forced to take off a whole year before I would apply for graduate school because those applications are due in December of that year. I had no choice but to play my last year and start quickly applying to graduate school in order to get the applications in on time. I was forced to change my minor to a minor that I could complete by the end of the year instead of the minor that would help me in graduate school.
My heart was broken, and my time was cut short with some of my best friends I have ever had.
I would not wish my experience on anyone. I now understand why college athletes commit suicide. Between the anxiety and lack of sleep and appetite from the constant attacks on my character and family, I felt like I couldn't take it anymore. Thankfully, with the support of my family and teammates, I am in a better place and I am free. I am free from her oppression. I am free from the horrible thoughts she made me believe about myself. I am free from the fear and anxiety.
I am free because she no longer controls me. That is why I am speaking out.
I hope people see that behind the sweet southern drawl and enticing smile is a woman that emotionally abuses her players by manipulation and bullying. You may be wondering why I stayed at NKU rather than transfer out of this toxic environment, and the reason is that I love my professors and I love this university. Getting my degree was the most important thing to me because psychology is my future, not basketball.
My family, my professors, teammates, and friends helped me get through these last three years.
There is a problem at NKU that only the victims and their parents were aware of until now. It's a problem that the athletic director refuses to acknowledge or do anything about. I fear for the recruits coming in that will fall for the same lies that we had fallen for. I know I would NEVER let anyone I loved or cared about play for this woman.
For three years, the victims of Coach Whitaker's emotional abuse have remained quiet, but here we are, and we are speaking up. This coach needs to be exposed for what she really is.