The William Peace University women’s basketball team was scheduled to play NC Wesleyan for the USA South Conference tournament championship on Saturday, but the game was called off only hours before tipoff.
While such cancellations aren’t as surprising as they once might have been thanks to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 did not factor into the decision on this occasion.
Rather, it was a show of solidarity by the Pacers, who decided to forfeit in protest of what they believe was an unjust suspension of a teammate. Junior Lauryn Cross was disciplined for an incident in which she says she was the victim of a racially motivated encounter following Peace’s semifinal win on Wednesday against Raleigh rival Meredith.
“We decided not to play because we felt like the situation is much bigger than basketball, and problems like this need to get solved at their root,” team captain Cierra Baker said. “If we would have played, we don’t think that the school administration or the athletic department would have taken us seriously because suspending Lauryn was wrong.
“We felt like Lauryn didn’t get the representation that she needed or that she was defended. And we did not want to represent a university, let alone bring home a banner and celebrate something, that is nothing to celebrate. That way we can fight this battle for Lauryn.”
Cross, Peace’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game, alleges that a Meredith player had spent most of the game baiting her with racial slurs and other expletives. The situation escalated in the aftermath of Peace’s 82-68 victory.
According to Cross, the player flashed an obscene gesture at her through the window on a door separating the teams’ locker rooms. The two crossed paths again in the parking lot as Meredith’s players were boarding their team bus.
“As I was going to my car, she was going to her bus sticking up her middle finger and saying a lot of things like ‘b—-,’” Cross said. “My teammates were holding me back, and I was sitting there crying. I was so frustrated because nobody was doing anything about it whatsoever.
“We reported to the refs, reported to an administrator and did everything that they told us to do. But nobody did anything.”
That changed Friday when Cross was suspended by Peace athletic director Tom Curle.
Cross claims that the disciplinary action was taken based on a report filed by Meredith alleging that she initiated the confrontations by entering the opposing locker room and following the player to the bus.
“Tom decided to suspend me because of what Meredith said,” Cross said. “He didn’t conduct any investigation, didn’t ask any of my teammates. He decided to suspend me on his bias and hearsay.
“I didn’t step in anybody’s locker room. I didn’t follow anybody to the bus. My teammates were there, they saw everything.
Team captain Baker said that neither she nor any other team members were asked about the incidents.
A statement issued by Peace President Dr. Brian C. Ralph acknowledged — without mentioning Cross by name — that “one our students informed us that she experienced racism and taunting during competition,” but he added that after investigations by both schools “the student responded to the incidents in a manner that resulted in discipline.”
The statement went on to say that Peace has asked the conference to set up a task force “to more strongly address issues of racism in competition.”
That, however, isn’t enough for Cross’ teammates.
“I don’t think our administration necessarily understands,” Baker said. “They just think that we’re supposed to ball on the court and just take the blows that come with it. But at the end of the day, I think they forget that we’re human and that we’re women before anything else. That’s the biggest part of it. We want respect no matter what we’re doing, and we’re gonna get it regardless.”
Coach Marquetta Dickens, in a social media post, supported her players.
“This is not ideal,” she wrote. “But I stand in solidarity with their decision and (am) proud they feel empowered to use their voice.”
No Peace athletic officials were made available for comment on the situation. Meredith, on the other hand, issued a statement questioning Cross’ claim.
“No official complaint was made and Meredith College was unaware of these allegations prior to media reports this weekend regarding a student’s claims against her university and the conference and William Peace University subsequently choosing to forfeit its game,” the statement said. “Meredith College’s athletics department has since interviewed all members of its basketball team individually and the team disputes the version of events that has been presented.”
Meredith coach LaQuanda Quick added that her team and the school’s athletic department “take accusations of racism, on the court or off, very seriously” and that her program has vowed “to be a shining example of what diversity and acceptance should look like on campus and throughout our country.”
This isn’t the first time Cross has been in the middle of a controversy this season.
The 5-foot-7 guard from Urbana, Illinois, who transferred to Peace after starting her college career at Barton, was suspended for four games earlier this season after she was involved in an altercation during a game Jan. 30 against Mary Baldwin College.
On that occasion, she threw a punch at an opposing player she said had been calling her the N-word throughout the game, including several times in front of referees. Both players were assessed technical fouls but were not ejected from the game.
Cross was suspended after another hearing in which she says her input was not solicited.
According to teammate Baker, that earlier incident has made Cross a target for opposing teams looking to throw her off her game or getting her to lose her cool.
“Ever since the Mary Baldwin game, other teams we’ve played have made comments to me and my teammates about Lauren,” Baker said. “I think they used that one situation as fuel to continue to antagonize her. Because of that, it became easier to abuse her, and instead of our school defending her, they just used her as a scapegoat.”
Peace, which won the conference championship last year, finished this season with a 10-5 record. Because the Pacers forfeited Saturday’s game, NC Wesleyan was awarded the title.
“At first I wanted my teammates to play because I love them so much,” Cross said. “But this is so much bigger than basketball. So I thank my teammates and my coach because they are by my side and have my back 100%.
“My team brought a championship last year. This is bringing so much more to Peace now, and I just thank them for everything they’re doing.”