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    Worker backs USF bias claims

    The women's basketball office secretary also talks of an inappropriate romantic relationship.

    By DARRELL FRY and ANTONYA ENGLISH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published September 19, 2000


    TAMPA -- A 21-year employee of the University of South Florida athletic department Monday publicly supported earlier claims of racial discrimination within the women's basketball program.

    Lisa Walker, who worked for 18 years in the men's basketball office before taking her current post as secretary in the women's office in 1997, took her allegations to the U.S. secretary of education and asked USF President Judy Genshaft to reassign her outside the athletic department.

    Speaking at her attorney's office Monday, Walker said:

    Allegations of racial discrimination against USF officials by former player Dione Smith were "essentially correct."

    There was a pattern of racial discrimination and hostility aimed at African-American players who were degraded and intimidated by university officials.

    University officials initially ignored the allegations and still have not addressed them properly.

    A former assistant coach may have had an inappropriate romantic relationship with two players, and athletic department officials knew about it.

    "I think it's time now for the right things to be done," Walker said.

    In a letter Friday to U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Walker, 44, stated: "There is now and has been an ongoing and pervasive pattern of racial discrimination, racial hostility, and degrading and intimidating actions by representatives of the University of South Florida directed against African-Americans in general and African-American women basketball players at the University in particular."

    Walker also said in the letter that the facts in Smith's lawsuit, filed last month, "are essentially correct."

    Walker said she never heard head coach Jerry Ann Winters, who is white, use the "N" word, but she said Winters has said the way black people dress and talk does not "properly represent the university or women's basketball."

    Winters could not be reached for comment Monday but has denied similar allegations in recent weeks.

    In an internal review conducted last year by USF, Walker told athletic department officials that Winters once stated that she did not want to purchase a home with any blacks in the area because she feared her property value would decline and because blacks did not keep their yards maintained or would let junk accumulate in their yards.

    The review found a "reoccurring theme and/or undertone of racism in the women's basketball office," but athletic director Paul Griffin halted it and ordered Winters to attend a four-hour diversity training session, according to university documents.

    Two weeks ago, Genshaft appointed former state Supreme Court Justice Joseph W. Hatchett, who is black, to investigate the racial discrimination allegations.

    Also, the university's equal opportunity affairs department is investigating Smith's claims of retaliation by USF after her dismissal from the team in April.

    But Monday, Walker blasted the university's handling of these matters.

    "I have a sincere interest in the way these young ladies, these African-American young ladies, have been treated," Walker said. "And I have concerns with the way the institution has handled this thus far.

    "I'm not comfortable with the progress that has been made thus far with either the athletic department or the EOA. And I'm uncertain where it now lies."

    Griffin said he wasn't aware of Walker's feelings about the controversy, even though Walker related in the 1999 internal review incidents of racially insensitive remarks by Winters. Griffin said Walker never expressed to him or the personnel department a desire to transfer out of the athletic department she has worked in since 1979.

    "I would think if an employee had some issues like that they would bring it to the attention of personnel or a supervisor, but this is all coming from you," Griffin said. "It's interesting that she would bring it up in that manner."

    Tampa lawyer Jonathan Alpert, who represents Smith and Walker, said Walker requested the transfer to avoid any possible hostility from athletic department officials.

    "It is probably in everybody's best interest not to have (Walker) in that position until this is resolved," Alpert said.

    Genshaft's special assistant, Pat Riordan, said the president's office received Walker's transfer request Monday afternoon, but Genshaft had not seen it.

    "We will look at it in the morning, have a chance to discuss it with the appropriate people and see what action needs to be taken," Riordan said.

    Walker also said Monday that there may have been an inappropriate romantic relationship between a former assistant coach and two players during the last year, and that several athletic department officials knew about it.

    Walker wouldn't name the coach and players involved, but Smith and former assistant coach Tara Gibson said it was common knowledge within the program that the relationships involved former assistant coach Ron Gathright, senior guard Shannon Layne and a former player.

    Contacted late Monday by the Times, Gathright admitted having a current romantic relationship with Layne but denied that they were involved while he was at USF.

    "That was something that coach Winters and I had talked and talked about, and it would never happen," said Gathright, 31, adding that Layne had nothing to do with his decision to resign in March.

    Layne, 21, didn't return repeated calls from the Times on Monday.

    Walker said that the relationships, which took place while all were a part of the team in 1999, were regularly discussed within the program and that Winters, Griffin and Steve Horton, assistant athletic director for compliance, were aware of them.

    Walker said Horton was told about one of the relationships last summer. She said she didn't know if he or anyone within the department investigated the claim or reached any conclusions.

    "It was widespread knowledge that there may have been an inappropriate relationship," Walker said. "But apparently there was no followup (by athletic department officials)."

    Griffin said Monday that he was not aware of any "inappropriate relationships" within the team.

    Asked Monday if he knew anything about the allegations, Horton said, "I'd rather not answer that."

    - Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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