Head Coach Signor-Brown Encouraged Culture of Ignoring Injuries, Favoritism, Unusual Control

Content warnings: mentions of alleged sexual abuse, unequal power dynamics, serious injuries, mentions of trauma.

This is the second story of a three-part investigative series into Signor-Brown’s career and players’ experience playing under her. For coverage of Signor-Brown’s inappropriate behaviors surrounding the topic of race and players’ personal values, as well as players’ responses to the Title IX allegations against Signor-Brown, check out our third story. For coverage of Vassar and Swarthmore investigations into Signor-Brown, refer to our first piece.

COACH BROWN’S TREATMENT OF INJURED PLAYERS (from 2013-2019)

Both current and former players under Candice Signor-Brown noted her often dismissive, unsympathetic attitude toward injuries and other health-related issues. They describe how she ignored and sometimes even denigrated those suffering from health issues, creating a culture in which players were encouraged to play through injuries. 

The Phoenix reached out to Signor-Brown twice via email, once on October 13 for a comment on our previous reporting and once on October 27 for a comment on these stories. The first email asked Signor-Brown to comment on the allegations made in the Vassar Survivor’s post, as well as a letter written by a Swarthmore Women’s basketball player published in Voices. In the second email, The Phoenix reached out to Signor-Brown to ask for a response to more than 15 players who allege abusive and inappropriate coaching behavior. We did not receive a response for either emails.

Zoe Walker (Vassar ’17) first started experiencing pain in her leg during her freshman season at Vassar in 2013-2014, but according to Walker, Signor-Brown repeatedly dismissed her pain. Later in the season, her leg had swollen to roughly twice its normal size, preventing her from walking properly. Walker said that yet again, Signor-Brown accused her of having a low pain tolerance and not being tough enough. 

“It was just a continuous messaging [from Signor-Brown] that, after a while, started affecting my confidence and trust in myself and my ability to know my own body,” Walker said.

The Phoenix corroborated Walker’s account of Signor-Brown’s injury with Zoe Walker’s mother, Joanna Walker, and received timestamped email documentation of this injury from 2013.

Walker was eventually diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis, a type of blood clot, in her leg. She ultimately went to the emergency room, where a physician told her that  if she had continued to push through the pain or boarded a plane to travel home like she had originally planned, she could have died of a pulmonary embolism. While Signor-Brown recognized Walker’s condition upon diagnosis from a doctor, Walker told The Phoenix that the alleged invalidation of previous complaints made Walker lose respect for Signor-Brown.

“I hadn’t really liked or trusted Coach Brown for pretty much the entirety of my experience with her, but that moment felt like [Signor-Brown] only believed me when a doctor told me that I could have died,” Walker said. 

Signor-Brown’s alleged lack of sympathy for injured players also became part of the team culture at Vassar. Despite Walker’s later diagnosis with a concussion, Signor-Brown still allegedly made her sit in the gym during practices. Samarah Cook, a teammate of Walker’s, corroborated this allegation. While it is normal in athletics for injured players to sit in on practices but not participate, such practices can be specifically detrimental to concussed players because exposure to light and noise from practices can exacerbate concussions.

Maeve Sussman (Vassar ’19), a four-year player and team captain at Vassar, discovered during their senior year that they had a bone deformity in their right hip that, through overuse, was causing damage to their labrum, the ring of cartilage that rims the hip socket joint. Though Sussman was able to play with this injury, pushing their body to that extent regularly caused them so much pain that they had difficulties performing basic functions such as getting out of bed, sleeping, and walking. “Adria,” a Vassar women’s basketball player who was on the team at the same time as Sussman, confirmed Sussman’s account of Signor-Brown pressuring them to play despite being injured. 

“My body will never be the same from playing under Coach Brown,” Sussman said. “And I can say that’s probably true for most people who had a substantial amount of play time underneath her.”

Sussman willingly played in three games following their hip injury. Following their official retirement from college athletics, however, they reported that they felt Signor-Brown still pressured them to “jump in” during several practices while other players sat out due to injuries. Another player who was on the team with Sussman, corroborated this detail. 

“Being asked to play in these practices felt like a violation of the physical limitations I had set for myself,” wrote Sussman in a 2019 letter to Vassar President Elizabeth H. Bradley. “Of course, Coach Brown was never ’forcing’ me to play in these practices, however, the culture she has created on the team — one in which players blindly abide by her wishes — and the fact that my injury wasn’t incapacitating at every moment made me feel like I needed to say ‘yes.’”

Samarah Cook, a 2018 Vassar graduate who played basketball all four years and was a two-year captain, said that Signor-Brown held practices without athletic trainers or people qualified to render emergency care occasionally, over winter breaks. Cook sustained her second stress fracture during practice in the absence of athletic trainers and continued to play without letting the injury heal. 

Cook corroborated that Signor-Brown made players with concussions continue to attend practices, which exacerbated their pain.

“For people with a concussion, she made them come in and practice or come and not practice — she would make them come into the court and sit,” said Cook. “Obviously, there’s fluorescent lighting, there’s loud noise. We could all see that these people with concussions were not getting better. They were actually getting worse.” 

Julia Roellke, a 2019 Vassar graduate who played for all four years excluding a semester abroad her senior fall, said that she was afraid to tell Signor-Brown about her serious injuries, fearing that Signor-Brown would think she was weak.

“I herniated two discs in my back my freshman year in college. [If] I was hurting and needed to step out, I [would have been] thought of as weak … So I, of course, never told her that I was hurt or injured, even though I should have been taking a step back …” 

Current members of the Swarthmore team also noted that Signor-Brown was unsympathetic towards those who were injured or physically exhausted, at least once flouting NCAA regulations that require Division III players to have one day off a week from athletics-related activities. According to “Beatrice,” a current Swarthmore women’s basketball player, Signor-Brown once made players come in on a Sunday to shoot 100 free throws as a team. Two current upperclassman women’s basketball players at Swarthmore,  “Meg” and “Audrey,” were present at this practice. Despite the players’ exhaustion, Signor-Brown gave them a punishment such as sprints or burpees for every free throw that they missed.

“My body was breaking down along with a lot of my other teammates,” said Beatrice. “… By NCAA regulation, we have to have one day off a week, at least one day. And she couldn’t even grasp that. A lot of people got injuries, which were just not addressed and people were forced to continue playing and practicing.”

Though Signor-Brown emphasized that players had the choice of whether or not to play while injured, injured players still felt pressured into pushing their bodies beyond their physical limits. Beatrice sustained a serious injury the 2019-2020 season, and she reported she felt that Signor-Brown repeatedly pressured her into playing through the injury.

“I was seriously injured at one point and [Signor-Brown] had been pressuring me to play so much,” said Beatrice. “She’d always be like, ‘Well, if I were in your situation I would play through anything,’”

In one instance, the air quality in the Fieldhouse caused players with asthma to struggle to pass a running test. The players had all been able to pass the test before and after that occasion. According to Audrey, Signor-Brown’s response was not one of sympathy but of blame.

“[This was a] very clear example of when all the players with asthma [were] not able to complete the running test. And she blamed that on us, even though it was very clearly [that] the air [quality] was bad and everyone was struggling,” Audrey said. “Her immediate reaction was to yell at us and [to] blame us.” 

Meg, another upperclassman player on the women’s basketball team, said that the team would hold weekly film sessions, in which they reviewed footage from previous games to critically analyze their playing and improve. During these sessions, there was at least one occasion on which Signor-Brown made the team repeatedly watch footage of a player incurring a serious injury. Players reported that rewatching that footage fulfilled no strategic purpose and felt gratuitous. Audrey and Beatrice were present at these meetings and stated that Signor-Brown would replay videos of players tripping or getting injured because she thought it was amusing. 

“One of the girls on our team blatantly tripped and fell. [Watching the footage] served no purpose,” said Meg. “She would just replay it, rewind, fast forward, and replay this person falling multiple times just because she thought it was entertaining.”

Roellke said that she believes that Signor-Brown’s coaching jeopardized players’ safety. 

”Beyond the physicality of a normal competitive collegiate athletic practice, Coach Brown facilitated unsafe practice environments where she encouraged players to get physical with one another.” 

For example, during one practice, Signor-Brown lifted all of the rules and encouraged players to hurt each other in an attempt to “see [their] grit.” During that practice, one player bit Roellke. Cook was at this practice and corroborated this detail.

“Adria,” who played women’s basketball at Vassar for three seasons between 2016 and 2019, believes that Signor-Brown would also occasionally hold injured athletes to a higher standard of performance than non-injured athletes.

She said, “For example, her fitness test for those injured athletes was significantly harder to pass than the non-injured athletes. There were running tests for the non-injured athletes and injured athletes did rowing, and the test was much harder to pass and we had to keep going back to do it in the morning.”

Cook corroborated that there were separate rowing tests that injured athletes had to repeat until they passed, but said that the difficulty of such tests were subjective.

Signor-Brown’s alleged disregard for players’ health, be it serious injury, chronic conditions, or mental wellbeing, was a prominent and consistent aspect of complaint in the 2019 letters from Vassar players and their families that sparked the EOAA investigation. According to Cook, conversations about the way Signor-Brown had treated player injuries had already been circulating when Cook arrived at Vassar College in 2014, yet the issue was not investigated by Vassar administration until players and their families took action to write letters of complaints and pressure the school to investigate in 2019. 

ASPECTS OF CONTROL THAT WENT BEYOND TRADITIONAL COACHING (from around 2011-2020)

While Signor-Brown employed tactics to control players on the court, aspects of her coaching style also controlled players’ social and academic lives. At Swarthmore, even under the Title IX Office’s no-contact order, Signor-Brown on at least two occasions exercised aspects of unusual control over players. On Sept. 1, before the 2020-2021 academic year began and during the college’s Title IX inquiry, according to Swarthmore women’s basketball players interviewed by The Phoenix, Signor-Brown sent an invitation for on-campus players to contribute to a Team Class Schedule on Google Calendar. The Phoenix has obtained documentation of this invitation. It is unclear whether Signor-Brown independently had access to on-campus players’ class schedules. She also violated the no-contact order during the players’ first practice on October 5, when she spoke to them as they entered the gym.

According to Cook, Signor-Brown displayed similar behavior in 2019 during the EOAA investigation. A no-contact order prohibited Signor-Brown from contacting Vassar women’s basketball players during the investigation, yet Signor-Brown would break the no-contact order and reach out to her “favorite” players. 

“But we [Vassar] had our own investigation, and she [Signor-Brown] broke every confidentiality rule for the people that were getting investigated. She would contact her ‘favorites,’” Cook said. “I’m not surprised that she broke her no-contact order with the Swarthmore team. It’s just a repetition of behavior.”

According to Cook, Signor-Brown would also question past players about aspects of the 2019 letters and share details from the letters with them. 

Current members of the Swarthmore women’s basketball team also noted some of Signor-Brown’s early behavior that seemed innocuous at first, but that they later on recognized as crossing personal boundaries.

“So at the beginning of the year, she [Signor-Brown] scheduled a meeting to come like one-on-one to all of our dorm rooms… [she] sat on our beds, and looked at all of our photos, and asked [us] questions about our personal lives,” said Meg, “We didn’t really question it at the time, but now it just seemed like unacceptable behavior. 

Audrey and Beatrice confirmed that this occurred at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year. 

Signor-Brown’s level of control over players and their personal lives was an open secret in Vassar athletics, even before the publishing of the Vassar Survivors Instagram post.

At Vassar, Naomi Johnson, a 2016 Vassar alum who left the team after their freshman season, said that they and other players on the team during the 2012-2013 academic year had to sign contracts allowing Signor-Brown to follow and monitor all of their social media accounts, including private accounts. This is not an NCAA requirement for college athletic teams, nor is it a common practice for athletic teams at Vassar or Swarthmore. 

According to Sussman, the social media contract required that players not post photos that implied drinking alcohol even if a player was of age, and had other requirements forbidding what the coaches thought were sexually suggestive photos. 

Although players interviewed by The Phoenix were not aware of any explicit consequences for breaking the social media contract rules, players report that they were punished through running rigorous sets of practice drills as the entire team watched on. Johnson recalled having to practice vigilance for what went on their social media out of fear that Signor-Brown would punish them.

“I remember always telling people, ‘if you have a picture of me from like, a party or whatever, don’t post that,’ or ‘Don’t tag me in it.’ Because I’m gonna have to run [extra drills] for it at this,” Johnson said.

Johnson also described an incident when they were a first year student and Signor-Brown saw hickies on their neck. About a month and a half later, Signor-Brown punished them for the hickies by making them run suicides in front of their teammates during a water break. Suicides are a vigorous sprinting exercise in which basketball players have to run from the baseline to the free throw line and back, to the half court line and back, to the far free throw line and back, and to the far baseline and back. While it is common practice among sports teams for the team to run together in solidarity with  a player who has to complete extra drills, Signor-Brown forbade the captains from running alongside Johnson. 

“She [Signor-Brown] told me to do like eight suicides in eight minutes…” said Johnson. “And she said it was about the hickies … And she’s been thinking about it for this long. And she wants to shame me in front of my teammates.”

Johnson said that it was common knowledge on the team that Signor-Brown did not like hickies, and that players before them had had to run for the same reason. Signor-Brown also called Johnson’s mother to tell her about the hickies. 

According to five players we interviewed, Signor-Brown would require that players run extra sprints if they had visible hickeys.  

Johnson also said that Signor-Brown publicly shaming them for their sexuality negatively impacted them as a queer person.

“I was just starting to identify as queer [then] and understanding more about that identity. And to have someone who is queer and out and is a Black woman shame me for being sexual was really hard to experience early on,” they said.

In an interview with The Phoenix, “Alison,” a friend of Eve, the original poster at the Vassar Survivors instagram page, said that Signor-Brown made it very clear that she didn’t want Alison helping Eve with anything, despite Alison’s support role as Vassar women’s basketball’s team manager during the 2009-2010 season. Alison also described one instance in which she attempted to support Eve, who was ill, on the bus ride home from an away trip. Alison said that Signor-Brown yelled at her to get away from Eve, citing the fact that Eve was an adult who could take care of herself. Alison had helped other sick players before, but doing so had never elicited that type of response from Signor-Brown.

Despite Signor-Brown’s inappropriate and controlling behavior towards Eve, Alison did not question it at the time because of the culture of not questioning coaches’ authority.

“I knew that coach had been a bit rough around [Eve], but I think I never really thought anything of it.” she said. “I think when you’re an athlete, you kind of just accept the culture of what it is and sometimes coaches fixate on players and just ride them.”

Samarah Cook said that Signor-Brown would leverage her friendships with various college administrators and staff to further control players.

“Whether it was security guards who would watch over us, whether it was the Title IX staff, [Signor-Brown] made friends that would protect her,” said Cook. “It was very biased and it just goes to show how Coach Brown leveraged her friendships to protect herself and also [to] go over the line with us [basketball players] a lot of the time.”

At Vassar and at Swarthmore, Signor-Brown’s control over players has even extended into academic life. Alice, Roellke, Walker, and Cook told The Phoenix in separate interviews that at Vassar, practice and game times sometimes interfered with women’s basketball players taking S.T.E.M. classes with labs. The constant prioritization of basketball over other aspects of student life frustrated Walker because Vassar is known for its rigorous academics, and players were not allowed to find an appropriate balance between basketball and academics for a D-III college.

Though the consequences of missing practices for academic commitments were unclear to Roellke, she suspected that players would not receive playing time for weeks.

“Coach Brown really would not allow you to have to take a class that was not in the practice breakdown,” she said. “So if you had a lab requirement to graduate, you had to figure it out or take a different time … That became really stressful because a bunch of us were science majors.”

While Roellke stated that she thought she understood the time commitment and expectations going into D-III athletics at Vassar, under Coach Brown’s leadership, she ultimately felt that basketball became her entire life, limiting her control over many aspects of her life. . 

“I didn’t have control over my body,” she said. “I didn’t have control over my academics. I didn’t have control over what I ate. I didn’t have control over how I spent my time. She owned us. When people are choosing a D-III athletic experience, they’re not choosing basketball to be their lives, and I felt like basketball was my life. And it’s what defined me.”

At Vassar, up to eight Saturdays in the Fall, Signor-Brown made players spend their off days fundraising for the team by selling concessions at West Point Academy football games. This did not violate NCAA guidelines for players to have at least one day per week without athletic commitments, since the NCAA does not consider fundraising an athletic commitment.

Players would leave around 6:00 a.m. and return nearly 12 hours later. West Point did not provide players with breakfast, and the free lunches did not have options for players with dietary restrictions. No other athletic team at Vassar had to spend their off days fundraising every week. Roellke and Cook reported that the substantial time they devoted to fundraising took opportunities away from them to participate in the Vassar community beyond basketball. 

Although Signor-Brown did not discourage Swarthmore women’s basketball players from taking certain classes and labs, two players interviewed by The Phoenix expressed that they were strongly discouraged from studying abroad though one player we spoke to eventually did study abroad. Additionally, the stress of playing basketball under her leadership impacted them academically.

“Even through this process, [Swarthmore administration] haven’t been helpful … I’d spoken to a dean throughout the year [2019-2020 school year], because academically, I was so stressed, like losing-my-hair insane,” said Audrey.

Signor-Brown dominated players’ schedules by consistently extending practices beyond their scheduled times, causing players to miss meetings and even dinner at Sharples. When players expressed their concerns to Signor-Brown, she did not adequately address keeping them over the designated ending time for practices. Signor-Brown also expected players to take frequent ice baths, which players had to allot extra time for.

“It just felt like we were putting in all of this extra time and all of this extra energy last year, [but Coach Brown’s immediate response made it seem like] we obviously didn’t care about basketball and [basketball] obviously wasn’t a priority for us,” said Meg. “So it was just making players feel bad for not doing all of this extra stuff that was really detrimental to people’s mental health.”

CULTURE OF FAVORITISM (from 2009-2020)

12 of the women’s basketball players from Vassar and Swarthmore interviewed by The Phoenix, nearly all of the players we’ve interviewed, have attested to one important aspect of Signor-Brown’s coaching style: favoritism. Signor-Brown would uphold some of the players as clear “favorites.” Other players were either “not-favorites” who did not receive preferential treatment but were not denigrated or “least-favorites,” whom she allegedly disparaged. Favoritism did not always correlate with athletic ability.

“Shakti,” a current Vassar student and women’s basketball player, said that Signor-Brown referred to her level of tolerance for players’ mistakes as a “leash.” The five starters, who were stronger players, had longer “leashes” and were allowed to make more mistakes than non-starters. While hierarchies between starters and non-starters are commonplace in sports, Shakti was not used to the extent of the hierarchy on the Vassar women’s basketball team.

“I would always say, [the starting five] were able to work through a little bit more and stay in the game for longer, but again it was a whole theme or culture around the favorites …who [Signor-Brown] was trying to connect with [and] kind of check in with about school, homework, other things like that.”

According to Cook, in an email sent to the Phoenix on November 15, the team was made up of players considered Signor-Brown’s favorite players, least favorite players, and a few players who didn’t receive much negative or positive attention from her.  

It is unclear how much favorites benefited from Signor-Brown’s attention at Vassar. While they did receive more attention, they also faced the same mistreatment as the rest of the team.

When Eve rejoined the team her senior year, she was excited when she finally became a “favorite.”

“Looking back now, I know I wasn’t just a favorite … but at the time, I think I just thought, ‘I’m finally a favorite,’” said Eve in an interview with The Phoenix. “I remember her telling me that she really respected that I came back to basketball and that I was willing to put my heart into this. … From there on, I was a favorite. And everyone knew it, too.”

In the Vassar Survivors Instagram post, Eve also wrote about the culture of favoritism that Signor-Brown fostered, and how she suffered even as a “favorite.”

“She had created a culture of ‘favorites’ and I wanted desperately to be on her good list,” Eve wrote. “Now I know she used her power over me to sexually assault and harass me,” she alleged.

“Felicity,” a Vassar alum whose season left the basketball team after one season during Signor-Brown’s starting years at Vassar. She said that Signor-Brown openly separated her from the team by refusing to even speak to her. Felicity was a walk-on, which means that instead of being recruited for Vassar women’s basketball, she made it onto the team after coming to Vassar.

“Before [Signor-Brown] even came [to Vassar] we were already practicing,” said Felicity. “I had a really good relationship with pretty much everyone on the team. I could scrimmage with them and felt like equals and they all treated me like equals. After she came into the picture, everyone basically acted like I was an inconvenience to their life, except three people.”

Signor-Brown forbade Felicity from wearing the Vassar uniform to most games, indicating to Felicity that she was not really a part of the team and could not even think about playing.

“So, I wasn’t allowed to dress out for the games. There were maybe three games that 

Coach let me dress out for,” she said. “She didn’t do that to anyone else. Just me.”

An anonymous source who was on the team with Felicity corroborated that Felicity was often asked to not wear the uniform. This source also said that Signor-Brown made it clear that she didn’t want Felicity on the team and ignored her, which set the tone for the way the rest of the team treated Felicity.

Felicity said that at the end of her one season, Signor-Brown held a meeting with Felicity in which she told Felicity that she was no longer welcome as a part of the team.

“[Signor-Brown] then basically said, ‘You have no place around here. We don’t want to see you again, we don’t want you to come back … You can get up and leave now,’” said Felicity. “I already didn’t like her, but I have a huge distaste for her after that meeting. It was just completely inappropriate [and] unprofessional.”

While the anonymous source who played with Felicity did not know about a specific meeting, the source corroborated that Felicity felt pressured to quit by Signor-Brown.

The culture of favoritism carried over to Swarthmore. On one occasion, when the Swarthmore women’s basketball team didn’t play well in a game, Signor-Brown took players into a classroom, wrote all of the players’ stats on a whiteboard, and excluded three players, implying that they were not worthy of inclusion with the rest of the team. There were thirteen women’s basketball players. Signor-Brown had excluded nearly a quarter of the team. Meg, Audrey, and Beatrice were all present at this meeting.

On this occasion, Signor-Brown also told Beatrice, who was injured at the time, that she was a replaceable part of the team. “Amanda,” another Swarthmore basketball player whose name was excluded from the whiteboard, said that after the [whiteboard] incident, there was some tension between teammates who are “favorites” and teammates who are “not-favorites,” with “favorites” siding with Signor-Brown in this incident. 

Amanda, however, attributed the behavior to Signor-Brown, rather than the “favorites.”

“It was pretty evident that Coach was a toxicity to our team, because I’m a firm believer that a toxic coach will breed a toxic environment and a toxic team,” she said. “I’m not saying that our team was toxic, but the people that she favored definitely weren’t themselves. They really did anything that they could to defend Coach even when they knew that she was in the wrong.”

Read the final story in our three-part series or read the first story.

CORRECTIONS:

November 22, 12:30 a.m.: The Phoenix has updated sentences in the article’s injuries section and the aspects of control section to further clarify and distinguish that certain player complaints are allegations and were not personally witnessed by The Phoenix. We also added clarifying details about how players’ athletic lives interfered with their academic lives.

November 22, 3:00 p.m.: The Phoenix clarified that a teammate corroborated Walker’s allegation that Signor-Brown made Walker sit in on practices while concussed.

November 23, 4:28 p.m.: The Phoenix added clarifying details around Signor-Brown’s violations of a no-contact order while she was under a Title IX inquiry at Swarthmore.

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