In December 2020, following an extensive three-part investigation from The Phoenix about allegations from numerous players of intense favoritism, toxic team culture, and bullying towards women’s basketball players on behalf of Coach Candice Signor-Brown, members of the Swarthmore women’s basketball team created a Change.org petition calling for her removal. As of May 4, 2021, 3,204 people have signed it, or roughly twice Swarthmore’s student population. The college, however, has decided to move forward with Signor-Brown as coach leading to multiple members quitting and an abnormally large number of recruits.
When players spoke to The Phoenix last semester and shared the petition, they had hoped that the college would listen to their concerns and remove Signor-Brown from her coaching position. In December, a player named “Audrey” expressed to The Phoenix that she thought that keeping Signor-Brown as a coach could mean the end of the Swarthmore women’s basketball team.
“By the school making this decision [to allow Signor-Brown to keep coaching], it showed to me that … they [don’t] care about women’s basketball,” she said. “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.”
Five months later, Signor-Brown has maintained her position as the head coach. Many players, including a former women’s basketball player named “Tess,” have expressed frustration over the college’s lack of action
“I thought that the administration was going to receive pressure from students, faculty, alumni, and higher ups like the Board of Managers that would say, ‘Hey listen, this doesn’t look good, especially after we got rid of the frats to be in the media, with another sexual assault,’” said Tess. “I thought it was gonna make some sliver of difference.”
Because only one player who has played under Signor-Brown is returning to the team due to the college’s refusal to fire Signor-Brown, Swarthmore Athletics recruited eight players in the class of 2025 to join the team next semester. This is an abnormally large recruiting class; for reference, for the 2017-2018, 2018-2019, and 2019-2020 academic years, only three incoming first years joined the team each year, respectively.
The Phoenix obtained the summary and conclusion of the college’s investigation. The document was originally sent via email from Provost Sarah Willie-LeBreton to women’s basketball players, Acting Director of Athletics Karen Borbee, and Assistant Coaches Brian Closkey and Brianna Spector on October 17, 2020. In the conclusion of the report, Willie-LeBreton wrote that she tasked Borbee with further handling the situation and that the Provost’s Office was done investigating. The report also lifted the previous ban on communication between the players and Signor-Brown.
Willie-LeBreton wrote, “With the delivery of this report, the no communication ban between Coach Brown and the players has been lifted. I have charged Acting Director of Athletics Borbee to follow up with Coach Brown and the players to develop a plan to begin the intentional process of healing and team-building.”
The players were told to keep the report confidential, including from their parents. According to Tess, Willie-LeBreton told players that the college would take legal action if they broke confidentiality about the report. Tess also shared that when one of the player’s parents emailed Willie-LeBreton about the report, the Provost told the players that she would not tolerate similar breaches of confidentiality with parents and external sources in the future.
The Phoenix has confirmed with three former players that as a result of inaction on behalf of the administration, all but one player on the 2019-2020 women’s basketball team quit. (The current first years on the team have not played under Signor-Brown due to the investigation and COVID-19.) Another former women’s basketball player, “Meg,” said that many players felt no choice but to quit the team.
“We had a meeting [with] the interim athletic director [in which] … we all complained to her [again], and she said, ‘Okay, well, we’re done with the complaining. It’s time, we need to move forward.’ So basically, you move forward with us or you go,” Meg said in an interview with The Phoenix.
Other players also echo this sentiment saying that quitting was a very hard and emotional decision.
“I really love the sport of basketball and … I would never want to play for Coach Brown again but, it just really, really pains me knowing that I’m having to give this up,” said “Beatrice,” another former player.
The former players are troubled by the large recruiting class, which is the result of Signor-Brown continuing to recruit in the Fall 2020 semester in person, despite the no-communication order from the Title IX Office and COVID safety restrictions against in-person recruiting. According to the Provost’s Office’s October report, the Provost was aware of the in-person recruiting, which it referred to, alongside Signor-Brown’s ongoing contact with players during the communication ban, as a “serious error in judgement.” While the report called on Signor-Brown to “comply with directives of this nature,” there do not seem to have been other consequences.
Several former players believe that the large recruitment class is an effort to ensure that most players quitting does not mean an end to Swarthmore women’s basketball.
“[It’s] a very large swath of recruits. I heard that there were eight incoming freshmen, because obviously they need a team,” said Meg. “When I heard there were eight new recruits coming in, I was really annoyed [because] they clearly intentionally decided to let eight other girls play under this coach. This was a very intentional move.”
Several of the incoming recruits applied to Swarthmore as early decision applicants, a binding application process that means students who apply must attend Swarthmore if admitted. The Phoenix’s investigative series was published on November 20, 2020, five days after Swarthmore ED1 deadline on Nov. 15. Tess expressed concern about incoming recruits who applied ED1 not knowing about the extensive allegations against Signor-Brown, as well as about contact they may currently have with the coach.
“They’d still be in contact with the coach so I have no idea what she’s telling them,” said Tess.
Tess added that before they quit, the team did not receive the new recruits’ contact information and had no way to inform them of the allegations against Signor-Brown, which she described as abnormal. Teams normally hold welcoming events for recruits as early as two years out and are able to text, call, and visit with potential recruits.
“It is not normal and it is so unusual how they did it, because they knew that if we talked to the players, they wouldn’t come,” said Tess. “We did not get to talk [to the recruits]. Only two seniors were allowed to talk [to them] and they were already graduating, so this issue [the possibility of continuing to play under Signor-Brown] didn’t affect them. They did not let [the people on the team, who would not tolerate playing under Signor-Brown again] have any information or any contact with these prospective students, which I think is very unfair.”
According to multiple former players, currently a reintegration process is ongoing between the remaining players with a psychologist not affiliated with the college leading conversations. Multiple former players also reported that another coach was hired and Signor-Brown is not allowed to be around the players without this person’s presence. (The Phoenix has not been able to confirm the additional coach’s title.) Beatrice also thought many recruits might not know what to do or how to handle the situation, as administration continues to tell students that the situation has been dealt with.
“If I were coming into the situation, it would be very difficult thing, do I choose my passion, or do I suck it up … incoming freshmen are … probably being sold on idea that this is being dealt with and [Signor-Brown’s] going to have a supervisor who’s basically like a babysitter coach, making sure that she’s behaving … but it’s just a very difficult position for them,” said Beatrice.
In an email to The Phoenix, Borbee declined to comment on the inclusion of a psychologist and an additional coach to monitor practices.
“Personnel decisions are private and are not for public discussion,” she wrote. “So while I am unable to comment on the specific situation of any team or coach, both the Provost and I have confidence in our head coaches and their ability to learn and grow, just as we have confidence in the ability of our student-athletes to learn and grow.”
Most former women’s basketball players are unsure what their next steps are after leaving the team. While The Phoenix can confirm a formal complaint has been filed with the NCAA about Signor-Brown’s behavior, players are unsure if anything will meaningfully change.
“You gotta jump through a thousand hoops just to get your voice heard, it doesn’t matter if they actually believe you or not,” said Tess.
Beatrice agreed, adding that this experience has eroded her faith in the ability of institutions to support and protect student athletes.
“I don’t really have a lot of faith in the system set up to prevent things like this because they just keep letting us down,” said Beatrice.
Trina Paul contributed reporting.
Photo courtesy of Swarthmore College Athletics.
05/09/21, 10 p.m.: This article has been amended to clarify details of the in-person recruiting.