Content warnings: mentions of alleged sexual abuse, unequal power dynamics, serious injuries, mentions of trauma.
This is the third story in a three-part investigative series on Candice Signor-Brown’s career and players’ experience playing under her. Refer to our first piece for coverage of Vassar and Swarthmore investigations into Signor-Brown. For coverage of current players’ allegations about how Signor-Brown treats illness and injury, interferes with players’ personal life and social media, and the culture of favoritism she created, read our second story.
BIAS TOWARDS BLACK PLAYERS (Class of 2016, 2017, 2020 at Vassar)
Several players expressed that when they first met Candice Signor-Brown, they were excited to play for a Black woman who is openly part of the LGBT community, since women’s basketball coaching is heavily dominated by white men.
Naomi Johnson, who graduated from Vassar in 2016 and played for Coach Brown during their freshman year in the 2012-2013 season, is Black and identifies as queer. They said that their excitement to play for Coach Brown was part of the reason they decided to attend Vassar. Before they arrived at Vassar, they had only played for white male coaches.
“[It] was really exciting for me to be able to have someone who I felt probably could relate a lot to my experience, and could be like a mentor to me in a way that I hadn’t had before on the basketball side of things,” they said.
Zoe Walker, who is a Black woman and graduated from Vassar in 2017, also said that she was excited to play for a coach whom she could identify with for the first time in her basketball career.
“When I was coming to Vassar, I was super excited to play for a Black woman. It is common in a lot of women’s and girls’ sports to have male coaches,” said Walker. “So I was excited, especially to have a woman but also a Black coach. I expected to feel supported and safe with Coach Brown, but I was very disappointed by my experience with that.”
Walker also commented that Vassar’s women’s basketball team wasn’t very diverse and that out of the few Black players on the team, more players quit than stayed.
“[Coach Brown’s behavior] might not be the reason [Black players would quit] but it just feels like a disappointing correlation between people that quit, and it feels like, if anything, there should be more support,” she said.
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.
Johnson also recalled that Signor-Brown compared Black athletes negatively to non-Black athletes, adhering to negative stereotypes about Black people.
“I also heard from one of my other teammates that there was a player on our team who identifies as] a non-Black person of color,” they said. “And [Coach Brown] had told her that she wished she had found a Black player with [the non-Black athlete’s] heart. Because Black players are stubborn and don’t work as hard as [the non-Black athlete]. And so apparently, we have a lot of athletic talent, but we don’t know how to harness it.”
Johnson also alleged that Signor-Brown stereotyped Black players in other ways. Johnson said that Signor-Brown kept dossiers of the players’ statistics and expected other players to memorize them. Johnson reported that Signor-Brown, however, described Black athletes as “athletic,” a descriptor she did not use for players of other races.
“I noticed that for every Black player, she wrote ‘athletic’ [in the dossiers],” said Johnson.
“Vassar is a very white school with very white-dominated sports. And so it means something when you’re stereotyping people like that and saying that they’re all athletic, especially coming from a Black woman. ’”
Another anonymous Vassar women’s basketball player on the team at the same time as Johnson corroborated Johnson’s quotes regarding Signor-Brown’s stereotyping behavior.
“Alice,” a current Vassar women’s basketball player who is white, also noted a pattern of Signor-Brown labeling Black athletes as “athletic,” regardless of the athletes’ skill levels. “Adria,” a former Vassar women’s basketball player, corroborated that Signor-Brown had a habit of labeling Black athletes as ‘athletic’.
“One thing that we all kind of noticed during [scouting] for games [was that] she would always say the Black athletes on the opposite team were always super athletic,” she said. “It just seemed like that was very consistent.”
OTHER INAPPROPRIATE BEHAVIOR AND COMMENTS
Off the court at Vassar, Signor-Brown frequently engaged in other inappropriate behavior that disregarded players’ objections and personal boundaries. Four players independently attested that Signor-Brown sometimes pushed players out of their comfort zones by touching them when they did not want to be touched. While current and recently graduated players interviewed by The Phoenix never characterized these kinds of physical contacts as sexual, players report that these behaviors could violate a player’s comfort, space, and bodily privacy. Cook related an incident specific to herself, in which Signor-Brown held her hand from the bus to the gym in front of multiple teammates.
“[Coach Brown] actually held my hand once [when] I didn’t want to hold her hand. She just grabbed my hand. And in those situations, I knew that they were wrong, but I didn’t feel comfortable [speaking out against them at the time]. I didn’t really talk to my teammates about it. I didn’t talk to our assistant coach…Just things that seemed really tame but then when you know what has been alleged, they aren’t,” Cook said.
Additionally, for post-game meals, Signor-Brown would sometimes take the team to restaurants like Chick-Fil-A and Hooters, which conflicted with players’ personal values. In the past, Chick-Fil-A has famously donated to groups that oppose gay marriage and LGBTQ rights. Hooters is known for its objectification of women, featuring young women waitstaff wearing revealing uniforms. Roellke described how she felt when she and Cook had to sit near the restaurant’s storefront, in sight of pedestrians, while wearing Vassar apparel.
“She made us go to Hooters for a post-game dinner. We were so confused because we were representing Vassar, wore our Vassar apparel, at a place that we don’t really value or respect,” Roellke said,
At least one social media post where players posed in front of Chick-Fil-A in their uniforms exists on the Vassar women’s basketball Instagram as of November 10, 2020. The post is timestamped from early 2019, with the hashtag “#CBsfavorite.”
In December 2016, the Vassar women’s basketball team traveled to Puerto Rico for a winter break trip. While the World Health Organization declassified the Zika virus outbreak as an international emergency in November 2016, the trip’s planning and booking coincided with the height of the outbreak.
“We went to Puerto Rico my junior year, which is when the Zika virus was present,” said Cook. “There was no communication or discussion about precautions or concerns. When parents and players mentioned bringing insecticide and other things, she kind of laughed and said, ‘You’re sensitive’ or ‘you’re weak.’”
Sussman corroborated in an email to The Phoenix that they do not recall receiving any thorough information about Zika virus prevention, symptoms, or treatment at that time.
Players at Swarthmore also commented that Signor-Brown has publicly highlighted and then disparaged issues that she knows a particular player to be uncomfortable with and to further unnerve that player. This has happened on multiple occasions with separate players. The topics of these inappropriate public discussions range from player’s mental illness, player’s familial relationships, player’s chronic health conditions, and social justice issues such as climate change that players were passionate about.
“[Pushing a player’s sore spot is] like, basically her strategy,” said Audrey, a current player at Swarthmore, who related how Signor-Brown engaged her in an uncomfortable discussion about her mental health in front of her teammates.
Audrey reported that Signor-Brown often justified these types of behaviors by claiming that she was trying to make players ‘stronger.’ Audrey and Beatrice also corroborated an account about how Signor-Brown discussed a teammate’s private health details crudely in public.
Signor-Brown coached at Vassar for nearly ten years. She has coached over forty Vassar students and around a dozen Swarthmore students. Many former Vassar women’s basketball players The Phoenix interviewed didn’t speak publicly about their experiences with her until years afterwards, and some didn’t even feel comfortable sharing their experiences, at the time, with the people who might have resonated with them: their fellow teammates.
Naomi Johnson ’16 describes feeling deterred from speaking out about their experience with Signor-Brown because amongst their teammates at that time, there was a lack of consensus about whether Signor-Brown’s behavior was considered inappropriate. Now, Johnson is speaking out because they don’t want other basketball players to experience what they experienced more than five years ago.
“She’s still a coach at another school. And so how is that not happening to these players?” Johnson said. “It just kind of makes me sick to my stomach to think that she was able to make that transition [from Vassar to Swarthmore].”
Maeve Sussman ’19 is speaking out because of the behavior they both watched and endured during their time playing for Signor-Brown. The letter Sussman wrote to President Bradley regarding their experience playing under Signor-Brown, which was part of the letters that sparked the 2019 EOAA investigation into Signor-Brown, was nine pages long.
“While I have many things I feel illustrate that Candice Brown isn’t fit for her position and has
behaved unethically and in a way that is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of Women’s
Basketball student-athletes, I believe that her desire to mandate and enforce unnecessary
regulations on her team’s personal, academic, and athletic lives as well as her complete disregard for the mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing of the team are most exemplary,” wrote Sussman.
Sussman said that during their time at Vassar, the intense nature of the women’s basketball team was an open secret among the athletics community, but that outside of athletics, no one showed support.
“Outside of athletics, nobody really cared about [women’s basketball team culture under Signor-Brown],” said Sussman. “And nobody really wanted to talk about it.”
While Signor-Brown has been at Swarthmore for a year, current players discussed how Signor-Brown’s controlling nature and how she treated them influenced their willingness to speak out.
“We [players on the team] are all very strong women. I never would have thought of us [as] having issues of speaking up and standing up for what’s right. But it was a combination of this hold she [Signor-Brown] had over us and her really forcing us to question ourselves,” Audrey said.
Multiple players, formerly at Vassar and currently at Swarthmore, also said that they became afraid to speak out against Signor-Brown’s behavior because they feared soiling their teams’ success. In the Vassar Survivors Instagram post, Eve wrote that one of the reasons she did not report Signor-Brown at the time of the alleged assault and sexual abuse was because she did not want to personally end the team’s success.
“At the time, I was so scared,” she wrote. “I didn’t want to report her because I thought my teammates would never forgive me for destroying our very successful season, even if they believed me.”
In the 2018-2019 season, when the Swarthmore women’s basketball team had played under Head Coach Renee DeVarney, they won only three games. In the 2019-2020 season under Signor-Brown, they won thirteen. Meg said that because of the team’s improvement in terms of games won, she felt as though no one would take her complaints seriously.
“Our record reflected that we did a lot better,” she said. “It didn’t seem like any of my complaints would be heard. Even the people that played a lot of minutes also had very detrimental experiences, but if you look at them on paper, it would seem as if they were doing very well … I didn’t want to take success away from my teammates.”
One current player on the Swarthmore team recalls feeling that Signor Brown’s oftentimes inappropriate and controlling behavior became normalized throughout the semester because of how outwardly successful the team appeared.
“Throughout the season, all of her behaviors just became so normalized. It wasn’t like there were a few isolated events in which things that were obviously wrong occurred,” Beatrice said. “It just became so ingrained into us that this was what a successful team looks like.”
After Eve’s post was published in July, multiple Vassar players interviewed by The Phoenix said that the post caused them to reflect on their own time playing under Signor-Brown. At least six Vassar players expressed similar sentiments that while they were horrified at the allegations articulated in the Vassar Survivors Instagram post, they were not shocked at the other patterns of behavior expressed in the post.
Sussman said that when they read the post, they felt a deep connection between their own experience and the controlling behavior that Eve alleged.
“I think the thing that really stood out to me was the way that the individual described how Coach Brown interacted with them, because I felt like such a deep connection to some of those things. … I have no doubt in my mind, [the behavior described in the post] is 100% true,” Sussman said.
Adria described how the lack of surprise that she felt after seeing the post caused her to reflect on Signor-Brown’s other behaviors described in the post — behaviors that she felt she had witnessed during her time on the team.
“I wasn’t surprised when I read about the assault, which was hard to realize, because I didn’t know about the allegation beforehand,” Adria said. “I think the lack of surprise is what really hit me. I’d seen [non-sexual but inappropriate] behavior [like what] was described in the allegation.”
Roellke expressed regret that only after the sexual assault allegation became public did people begin to take the overall problematic culture Signor-Brown fostered seriously.
“It is a shame that [only] once it crossed a line from being mental abuse to being more sexualized that people are taking it seriously,” Roellke said.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER BASKETBALL?
Quitting basketball was more easily said than done for the players The Phoenix interviewed. Many college-level basketball players have spent most of their lives playing basketball. Teams spend so much time together that they become extremely close-knit groups. For some players, quitting basketball at the college level means not only losing one’s community, but also losing a part of oneself. Even given these potential losses, Signor-Brown’s coaching style has pushed several players to either quit or consider quitting.
Off the court, Signor-Brown’s coaching style has negatively impacted the way players see themselves and interact with the world around them. Years after graduating from college, former basketball players under Signor-Brown still recall the sometimes traumatic experiences of playing for her.
Johnson said that their training as a therapist has caused them to reflect on the trauma they endured playing for Signor-Brown and how it has followed them through adulthood. They emphasize that while they felt very isolated during their year on the team, they likely weren’t the only one despite feeling that way.
“I am a therapist … and [regarding] what I know about trauma and the somatic effects of trauma on the body … that is what [my experience with Signor-Brown] is,” they said. “I can’t think that I’m the only one who experienced that, even if I didn’t necessarily see it at the time.”
Johnson quit basketball after their freshman season, unwilling to endure more of Signor-Brown’s coaching. As is the case for many players, Johnson played basketball for much of their life and quitting the sport altogether changed them as a person.
“This is a sport that mattered so much to me and got me to Vassar in a lot of ways,” Johnson said. “And I really missed it. I didn’t want to quit, and it completely changed my identity … I didn’t pick up a basketball for a while after that.”
After college, Roellke continued to be involved in basketball, serving as a coach at an independent school. While she is taking a year off from coaching basketball, in part due to COVID-19, Roellke believes that part of her hesitancy to continue coaching was because of her experience playing under Signor-Brown.
“I was a coach this past year. I’m no longer a coach [this year], partially because of COVID, but also partially because basketball still strikes such a raw nerve for me,” she said. “[Signor-Brown] kind of ruined basketball for me, something I was initially so passionate about.”
Walker also recalled experiencing complicated feelings when she interacted with prospective students while still on the team at Vassar. While she considered telling them about the nature of Signor-Brown’s coaching and the team culture, she felt afraid that the team would find out and think she was sabotaging them.
When Walker quit the team her junior year, she wanted nothing to do with Signor-Brown or the rest of the team. Likewise, though the team was close and likened themselves to a family, the team shunned her and cut contact. According to Walker, the team’s treatment of her once she left the team was not an isolated incident, and it was common for the team to turn hostile against people who quit.
“That’s also telling of the team that if someone was prioritizing wanting to study abroad or actually have a good college experience and not feel tormented by this team and the coach, and then [if someone] made the decision to quit, a majority of the time people would talk shit about them and it was just very much like a separation,” she said.
Several Swarthmore players, including Meg, Audrey, and Beatrice, are either considering or committed to leaving the team if Signor-Brown remains at Swarthmore.
“I’m at the point where I am fully committed to quitting if she is our coach,” said Meg. “We’ve played basketball our entire lives … It’s sad that I’m coming to the realization that even though I love basketball, and it’s a huge part of my life [and] my identity, not playing under Coach Brown is still a better alternative.”
While the number of players who have committed to quitting is still in flux, nearly one-third of the Swarthmore women’s basketball players confessed to us that they plan to quit because Signor-Brown is staying on. The minimum number needed to establish a Division-III women’s basketball team is five people. Due to Title IX regulations, athletics departments in institutions that receive government funding, such as Swarthmore, need to provide opportunities for men and women to participate in sports in a way that is proportionate to their respective enrollment rates at the college, which at Swarthmore is around 50/50. Changes to the women’s basketball program could impact the entire landscape of Swarthmore athletics.
To Audrey, Swarthmore’s lack of action against Signor-Brown signals that the college does not care about women’s basketball or female basketball players.
“By the school making this decision, it showed to me that … they [don’t] care about women’s basketball … They are willing to throw away the women’s basketball team, possibly forever, because they just didn’t want to fire this coach for who-knows-what reason.”