For years, NKU women’s basketball players experienced a culture of abuse fostered by its head coach that went unaddressed by administrators, according to allegations by former NKU players and their parents.
Now, the university says it will conduct an “independent, external review and assessment” of the women’s basketball program.
Former women’s basketball guard and NKU senior Taryn Taugher first accused head coach Camryn Whitaker of emotional abuse leveled at her and others in a post to blog site The Odyssey on March 24.
In the post and in an interview with The Northerner, Taugher detailed a “crying couch” where she said Whitaker would make players sit as she berated them. Taugher also said Whitaker once kicked her knees out from under her, sending her to the ground. Put-downs during practices and dividing players in locker rooms, on the team bus and in public were also common, Taugher said.
Former player Shar’Rae Davis came forward with similar allegations on a Facebook Live stream on March 25. Davis, who lives with chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract, said Whitaker targeted her because of her illness and isolated her from the team.
In her post, Taugher called the alleged abuse “a deep, dark, hidden secret” that was “swept under the rug” by NKU Athletics and the Office of Title IX, which handles gender and sex discrimination complaints.
Former players Kasey Uetrecht and Davis also told The Northerner that Whitaker tried to humiliate and divide players.
Uetrecht and Taugher said they made complaints about Whitaker’s behavior to NKU Athletics and brought concerns to the Office of Title IX. But their complaints did nothing to change how Whitaker treated her team, they said.
“Too many people to count” knew about Whitaker’s behavior, including other coaches and administrators, Taugher said—but Whitaker warned players not to speak about what happened behind closed doors, threatening their scholarships and their status on the team, because it would be “your word against her’s.”
NKU was “aware of the complaints surrounding the women’s basketball program” which have been “addressed in accordance with university policy,” according to a university statement on March 25.
Eight current players said in a March 28 letter posted online that the “demands and hardships” faced by the NKU women’s basketball players “have not exceeded the expected amount” for a Division I team.
“In fact, we believe the struggles of today will only benefit us in the future,” the players’ letter read. “We will be better athletes, employees, and individuals because we are pushed to be our best.”
The letter did not name Whitaker or respond directly to allegations of emotional abuse.
Neither Whitaker nor NKU Athletics responded to The Northerner’s request for comment.
Making it ‘personal’
Taugher told The Northerner the way Whitaker talked to and treated her team went beyond the demands of a challenging coach. It wasn’t motivating. It felt personal.
“She will just explode and threaten to kick you out of practice, tell you she doesn’t need you, call you lazy, call you names,” Taugher said. “It just builds up, and she holds that grudge.”
Abuse was more common on something Taugher said Whitaker had named “the crying couch,” a black leather sofa in her office. It was there, Taugher said, that the coach would lob personal attacks about players, their families and their personalities.
Taugher, who joined the team in 2015, said the treatment started when Whitaker began coaching at NKU in 2016.
“As soon as she was hired in,” Taugher said. “It was targeted at me and about 90 percent of the team.”
Some teammates felt Whitaker’s “wrath” worse than others, Taugher said, and Whitaker targeted players for obscure reasons.
“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,” Taugher wrote in her post.
In summer 2018, Whitaker “humiliated” Taugher by kicking out her knees and sending her to the ground in front of parents and first-year teammates on move-in day, Taugher said.
“I was in shock and searched for an explanation for this behavior, but all she did was laugh and walk away,” Taugher wrote. “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.”
Taugher also remembers Whitaker hitting whiteboards in frustration and throwing rolls of paper towels in the direction of players sitting in the locker room.
“We were afraid when she’d wind up and smack the whiteboard and her hand would be red and she’d have to go get ice,” Taugher said. “We’re all like ‘what is going on?’ It scared all of us. If she did that to one of us, we’d all be knocked out.”
In addition to direct verbal abuse, Taugher wrote that Whitaker would “do anything” to isolate players from each other, labeling certain teammates “negative,” not “in a good place” and a “bad f—– friend and teammate.”
Isolating team members
Shar’Rae Davis, who left the team after the 2016-17 season, told The Northerner that Whitaker targeted and isolated her because Davis lives with chronic inflammation of the intestinal tract.
“I felt like I kinda had my circumstance held against me,” Davis said. “She didn’t understand it and I don’t think she tried to understand.”
Davis recalled a practice during which she had to quickly excuse herself to the restroom. When she ran off the court, Whitaker “humiliated” her by making the rest of the team run until she returned.
“It got to me,” Davis told The Northerner.
Taugher referenced that incident in her post as an example of Whitaker’s abuse.
“She made us run because she was throwing up in the bathroom,” Taugher told The Northerner. “I wanted to cry ‘cause I felt so bad for Shar’Rae because it’s not her fault. She has a disease.”
Davis also said she felt her “confidence” on and off the court was held against her.
“Many times she would yell, ‘They didn’t hire Shar’Rae, they didn’t hire you to coach this team,’” Davis said. “And it would just come out of nowhere, I wouldn’t even say anything.”
During a four-game trip to Michigan in February 2017, Davis said she was forced to sit alone at a restaurant while other players ate breakfast together.
“She didn’t want the team to sit anywhere near me when it came to eating food,” Davis said.
On the same trip, she stayed in her own separate room at the hotel while other players shared rooms each night. She saw another coach remove her roommate’s name from a team list to ensure Davis would spend the night alone, she said.
“We all saw the [graduate assistant] scribble the person’s name out and move that person to a different room,” Davis said.
After the trip, she said she considered leaving the women’s basketball team to spare others from Whitaker’s ire.
“I felt responsible for certain players feeling scared to talk to me,” Davis said. “I didn’t want my teammates to be scared to talk to me ‘cause they might not play in the game.”
Reporting Whitaker didn’t seem possible, Davis said, and she was afraid no one would believe her if she did. She felt like she couldn’t tell her parents.
“When you read about it [in Taugher’s post], it sounds unreal, so I feel like no matter what I had to say, it was always her word against mine,” Davis said.
Instead, she stayed on and completed the season with the support of the other players, but it didn’t end after she left. Davis remembers returning as a graduate to watch a game at BB&T Arena.
“She saw me there, and she kept staring me down throughout the game,” Davis said. “I felt like I was back in those uncomfortable positions when I played. It was really traumatic and really weird.”
‘It was a way of keeping me quiet’
Coaches and team managers saw what was happening, Taugher said. But they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—help.
“They know, but they act like they don’t,” Taugher told The Northerner. “When they see someone crying in practice they’ll be like, ‘it’s ok, keep your head up. Just push through.’ We’re just like, how are you not seeing what she’s doing to us?”
Kasey Uetrecht said Whitaker punished her for hanging out with Davis on the team’s bus during the February 2017 trip to Michigan, where players were told not to associate with Davis.
Uetrecht, a junior player at the time, said Whitaker reprimanded her for talking to Davis. Davis recalled getting Uetrecht’s text saying she “got in trouble for sitting by” her.
Uetrecht later called her parents to drive her home from the Michigan hotel. That week, Uetrecht said she and her parents met with Whitaker and NKU Athletics Director Ken Bothof, but “he had no interest in hearing about” Whitaker’s behavior.
“He laid down a release form in front of me and told me to sign it,” Uetrecht said in a message to The Northerner. “My parents and I said absolutely not. We felt that I was forced to leave a bad situation and did not necessarily ‘quit,’ therefore my scholarship would be honored for my senior year.”
She was eventually allowed to keep her full-tuition athletic scholarship on the condition that she leave the team and discontinue living with other women’s basketball players, according to a document Uetrecht provided to The Northerner bearing Bothof’s signature.
“There was no formal gag order, but I do believe that it was a way of keeping me quiet,” Uetrecht said.
Reporting to Title IX
Uetrecht did not take her concerns directly to the Office of Title IX. Instead, she wrote about Whitaker for a paper on leadership she submitted for an organizational leadership class.
“I chose to do mine on Coach Whitaker and why she was a bad leader,” Uetrecht told The Northerner. “I wrote 12 pages…the easiest paper I had ever written.”
The class professor later submitted the paper to a colleague, who urged Uetrecht to contact the Title IX office. She filed a complaint and soon met with a coordinator.
“I met with her and she said she would be in contact with the athletic department to look further into this. I never heard from her again,” Uetrecht said.
Taugher also filed complaints to the Office of Title IX in November 2018 regarding the kicking incident and a separate non-consensual sexual contact incident she witnessed between Whitaker and another player she did not name.
After meeting in November with Deputy Title IX Coordinator Rachel Green and Title IX Investigator Angela Zippin about both incidents, Taugher reached out again in February. Zippin told Taugher they could not “share information about the status of the incident” citing confidentiality, and Green said she could not “share any actions taken,” according to a Title IX document and email chain Taugher gave to The Northerner.
“What I can tell you is that your concerns have been addressed,” Green told Taugher in her last email.
Taugher said there was no follow-up from the Office of Title IX after Feb. 4.
Players told not to speak to parents
Taugher told The Northerner that Whitaker told players not to talk about practices with others and to limit contact with family during the basketball season.
“She made it clear my sophomore year,” Taugher said. “She’s like, ‘whatever happens in practice, you don’t need to be telling your parents.’”
Nancy Mungar, mother of NKU sophomore forward Reece Mungar, called the head coach a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” in a scathing Facebook post supporting Taugher’s account and fiercely criticizing Whitaker.
“Her trickery, lies, manipulation and segregation of players is overwhelming and constant,” Mungar wrote in a post to the group “NORSE NATION”. “Secretly telling players not to hang out with others, openly calling my daughter a liar when, in fact, she was lying. On many occasions, Whitaker even advised players to stay away from parents, likely because she felt threatened by them.”
Mungar also said players went to NKU’s Office of Title IX to complain about Whitaker, but to no avail.
“Here we are months later, still no change, forcing numerous players no alternative but to transfer,” Mungar wrote. Under Whitaker, eight players have transferred or left the NKU program.
Taugher’s father Terry told The Northerner that Whitaker put on a good first impression: a “nice person” with a “sweet southern drawl” who seemed to care about his daughter.
But something changed when Taryn arrived at NKU, he said.
“After the first practice, Taryn called and said ‘Dad, Coach Whitaker doesn’t like me,’” he said. “She’s picking on me pretty bad and all the players can’t figure out why she doesn’t like me. We just met.’”
Months later, his daughter told him the treatment got progressively worse. He said he, his wife and Taryn met with Whitaker, but the Taughers felt the coach didn’t listen.
“She goes, ‘Taryn doesn’t understand, this is the way I coach, and if she don’t like it, too bad,’” he said.
After Whitaker’s behavior got worse, Terry said he had several in-person and phone discussions with Bothof regarding the behavior.
Then he got a call from Whitaker, threatening him never to talk to Bothof about her again.
“‘I’m invincible,’” Terry remembered Whitaker saying. “‘I’ll be here longer than your daughter.’”
But that isn’t the way Terry, who played Division II basketball for the University of South Dakota, remembers his coach acting.
“I got beat up as far as I’m getting screamed at if I made a turnover, but it wasn’t personal,” he said. “This is nothing but personal.”
Terry, who lives in Michigan, remembers his daughter calling from NKU, wanting to leave the team under the mounting pressure.
“She called and said ‘I want to quit,’” he said.
“I go, ‘Taryn, if you quit, she won.’”
After years of this treatment and with little help from university officials, Taugher said she was left with a dampened sense of self-worth. Anxious even when she wasn’t around Whitaker, Taugher said that she couldn’t sleep and that she would sometimes break down crying for no reason.
“What used to be joy and passion quickly became fear and numbness as I stepped into practice,” she wrote. “Basketball became something that I no longer loved but associated with being emotionally abused.”
Davis said the verbal beatings and cold treatment affected her long after she was off the team and away from the coach.
“She truly thinks she’s helping these college girls when really, it’s destroying not only a legacy that NKU had before she got there, but she’s destroying kids’ lives,” she said.
About Coach Whitaker
Whitaker was hired in May 2016. In her three seasons as head coach, she has led NKU women’s basketball program to three losing seasons—the program’s first losing seasons since the 1980s. Eight players and two coaches have transferred or left the NKU program under Whitaker’s leadership.
Before head coaching at NKU, Whitaker assistant-coached for the Kentucky Wildcats for two years. Since 2006, she has coached in various capacities for Western Kentucky, Dayton, Missouri State and Austin Peay.
The Northerner reached out to NKU Athletics, Director Ken Bothof and Head Coach Camryn Whitaker about public allegations, but did not receive a response. Whitaker deactivated her Twitter account on March 24.
NKU is “aware of complaints surrounding the women’s basketball program,” according to a university statement issued March 25.
“We have taken these complaints seriously and they have been thoroughly reviewed separately by the Title IX and Athletics offices, and addressed in accordance with university policy,” the statement read. “There are ongoing efforts to improve communications and relationships between the program’s leadership and student-athletes. We are committed to fostering a safe, healthy and inclusive learning environment for anyone who is a part of our campus community.”
Current NKU players Grace White, Taylor Clos, Grayson Rose, Jazmyne Geist, Kailey Coffey, Molly Glick, Ally Niece and Emmy Souder signed a letter supporting their head coach, saying the demands of playing college basketball are “hard to understand” for non-athletes. They affirmed that these “demands and hardships are not and have not exceeded the expected amount.”
“Our experience on the Northern Kentucky University women’s basketball team has been positive from day one to now, despite the demands and struggles,” their letter read.
Now, NKU will further review the situation, according to a statement issued Monday. The university is currently determining who will head the assessment.
“Northern Kentucky University values all of its students, including its student-athletes. In response to new concerns raised by former women’s basketball student-athletes, NKU will conduct an independent, external review and assessment of the program,” the statement read.
‘This coach needs to be exposed’
After Taugher posted her account, Davis also went on Facebook Live to talk about allegations.
“It’s gonna be our words against hers, and I’m sure the whole school will be behind her,” Davis said on the live broadcast.
But now, she told The Northerner, she wants to warn incoming players about what they could face under Coach Whitaker.
“I’m speaking now because it’s important for incoming players to know what they are going to endure,” Davis said.
Uetrecht also said she feared speaking out.
“I knew Coach Whit’s pattern of behavior would not stop with just me or Shar’Rae, so I waited because I knew there would be more victims,” Uetrecht said. “And here we are.”
Taugher said the problem has been hiding in plain sight, and that players’ and parents’ complaints to the administration about Whitaker must be properly addressed.
“I fear for the recruits coming in that will fall for the same lies that we had fallen for,” Taugher wrote. “I know I would NEVER let anyone I loved or cared about play for this woman.”
Now, as Taugher has left the NKU women’s basketball team after the 2018-19 season, she and others are no longer afraid to come out against their coach.
“For three years, the victims of Coach Whitaker’s emotional abuse have remained quiet, but here we are, and we are speaking up,” Taugher wrote.
“This coach needs to be exposed for what she really is.”
Northerner Sports Editor Sierra Newton contributed to this report.