Illini AD announces steps to better serve student-athletes


In the wake of allegations of abuse and mistreatment made by former athletes toward the Illinois football and women’s basketball programs, Illinois athletics director Mike Thomas announced Tuesday that his department is taking immediate steps to strengthen the emphasis on the well being of student-athletes.

The steps are aimed at increasingly the ability for student-athletes to communicate with the athletics department if there are issues involving their coaches, better informing coaches on how to behave and creating a couple positions to oversee the athletics programs.

“The fact that the recent allegations were first reported to us on social media instead of directly to us shows that in this fast-changing environment, we need to make sure we are providing students and their families even more access to internal support,” Thomas said in the announcement. “Our program is known for integrity, and we must ensure that our stated commitment to our student-athletes is truly beyond reproach.

“We feel our programs support a culture of respect and dignity that meets or exceeds most of our peer institutions. However, as people have made allegations that show we can do even more, we are exploring these long-term enhancements to ensure we are the best in class for our support of the health and well being of our student-athletes.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Mike Thomas addresses firestorm surrounding Illini athletics]

The university is currently in the middle of a pair of firestorms surrounding the football and women’s basketball programs. Former Illinois offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic took to Twitter on Mother’s Day and unleashed a series of accusations toward head football coach Tim Beckman, asserting that Beckman is an abusive bully who forces his players to play injured, demonizes injured players and threatens to take away their scholarships. A week later, letters from the families of former women’s basketball players accused that coaching staff of similar things, including forcing players to play hurt, and included other allegations such as racially themed ones like the suggestion of separate practices for African-American players.

Thomas has taken plenty of heat for supporting Beckman and head women’s basketball coach Matt Bollant. But the university has announced an independent investigation into the allegations made toward the football program. And, after an internal review of the women’s basketball program turned up no violations of NCAA rules, university policies or applicable laws, the university asked a Chicago law firm to further investigate things.

The steps announced Tuesday include plans to better teach student-athletes about how to anonymously report problems, establish a mentoring program with former student-athletes, set up weekly meetings with student-athletes to openly discuss things and create a leadership council that will meet with Thomas and not the coaches.

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The department will also implement the “Conduct Expectation for Coaches document” and increase training for coaching staffs on how to be more supportive of student-athletes.

The university will also hire an ombudsmen to serve student-athletes and a consultant to identify “potential risks related to workplace misconduct and the treatment of student-athletes.”

The announcement pointed out that the department already has a great deal of resources for student-athletes, including Thomas’ open-door policy with all student-athletes who wish to talk to him about problems.

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