(NEW YORK) — There’s an ugly secret lurking behind the women’s basketball program at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, according to a stunning lawsuit filed Tuesday that accuses the veteran head coach of physical, verbal and emotional abuse.
Ashley Cooper, a 20-year-old who spent two seasons as a scholarship player for the Crusaders, charges that longtime head coach Bill Gibbons struck and berated members of the team repeatedly and sometimes “in front of hundreds of witnesses” during games. She said complaints about the abuse were covered up and ignored.
In court papers filed in Manhattan, Cooper said that the college — based in Worcester, Mass. — turned a blind eye to abuse that was well known among team members. She accused the school’s athletic director of being negligent in refusing to take any action. The abuse Cooper suffered forced her to transfer out of Holy Cross after two years, she said, and left her unable to play the game she loved since childhood at the collegiate level.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else ever again,” Cooper said in an exclusive interview with ABC News. “I want to stop it. I’m doing this for other people. I’m taking a stand for others, for every freshman that walks through the door.”
Now attending New York University, Cooper, a standout player from Colts Neck, N.J., tearfully described Gibbons “screaming in my face” and other “abuse.”
Gibbons’ “actions constitute the worst type of bullying because not only is defendant Gibbons her coach and supervisor, but also he is someone she is supposed to respect,” according to the lawsuit. Cooper was reduced to “fear of physical pain,” the filing states.
Cooper alleges that Gibbons also “struck another female player on the back” during a March 2013 Patriot League Tournament game against Lehigh. “Following the Lehigh incident, the player’s father verbally complained to” the athletic director, but the athletic director did nothing, Cooper alleges.
At one point, Gibbons — who would act in an “outrageous manner in his yelling, ranting, screaming and hysterics” — struck Cooper so hard he left a handprint that didn’t go away immediately, according to court papers.
Opponents frequently consoled members of the Holy Cross team with comments like “your coach is crazy,” Cooper alleges.
Reached Tuesday by phone at home, Gibbons hung up on ABC News reporters.
Soon after the lawsuit was filed, Holy Cross announced outside attorneys are being brought in to review the allegations.
In a statement to ABC News, the college said: “The physical, mental and emotional well-being of our students is our highest priority at Holy Cross. We just received the lawsuit and are in the process of reviewing it. Ms. Cooper had brought her concern to the college and we investigated at that time. The lawsuit we received today includes a series of new allegations and we will now bring in outside counsel to review them.”
Richard Regan, who was the Holy Cross athletic director for 15 years until retiring earlier this year, did not responded to requests for comment from ABC News.
In the past, Regan has been publicly critical of poor behavior during intercollegiate sporting events. When he led an NCAA committee in 2012 that reprimanded New Mexico’s men’s soccer coach and the team’s goalkeeper, Regan was quoted as saying, “We believe the championship is discredited by the unsportsmanlike actions of these coaches and expect all coaches to conduct themselves in a manner befitting the championship.”
The Holy Cross accusations come on the heels of news last week that Keith Brown, the women’s basketball coach at Georgetown University, resigned amid allegations that he has consistently verbally abused his players.
Brown’s resignation came after ABC News affiliate WJLA obtained audio of a Hoyas coach belittling and cursing out players who crossed him.
On the recordings, the coach could be heard shouting profanities at unidentified players on several occasions. At one point, he’s heard telling a potentially injured player that she was a “dumb f—.”
At Holy Cross, Gibbons has been head coach of the women’s basketball team for nearly 30 years. He is a legend at the college in the suburbs of Boston, and only the sixth person to coach the women’s basketball team. He is the winningest coach in the program’s history.
In the lawsuit, filed in Manhattan because the plaintiff lives there and because of a number of connections that Holy Cross has to New York City, Cooper is seeking unspecified damages from Holy Cross. Among other things, she wants to be reimbursed for her tuition and expenses at NYU because her original plan was to earn her bachelor’s degree at Holy Cross courtesy of the full basketball scholarship she was awarded.
“When I heard this story, as a former Division 1 athlete, lawyer and – most importantly – mother, I was outraged to learn that this was going on,” said Cooper’s lawyer, Elizabeth Eilender. “Most importantly, the college was doing nothing about it.”
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