U.S. wheelchair basketball coach resigns after players allege emotional misconduct

The U.S. women's wheelchair basketball team was coached by Lawrence "Trooper" Johnson at the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics
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After the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) announced on Tuesday that Lawrence “Trooper” Johnson would continue in his role as head coach of the women’s national team through the 2022 season, multiple current and former members of the team spoke out on social media.

Four members of the U.S. team that won Paralympic bronze in Tokyo – Kaitlyn Eaton, Ali Ibanez, Josie Aslakson, and Courtney Ryan – posted on social media alleging that Johnson has displayed “acts of emotional misconduct” during his tenure with the team.

On Friday morning, the NWBA announced that it had accepted Johnson’s resignation, effective immediately.

Johnson, who competed in the men’s wheelchair basketball tournament at four Paralympic Games, had served as head coach of the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team since 2017.

“On the road to Tokyo, my teammates and I were quieted, demeaned, and manipulated into playing under fear-based leadership,” Aslakson wrote on Instagram. “I’ve had tough coaches but none that mistreated my peers and I to this degree– none that dismissed female voices and destroyed the confidence of competent and talented athletes.”

“I am used to receiving constructive criticism from coaches, however, the negativity and personal attacks directed towards me from the head coach affected my confidence and my game at a time that I needed to be at my best,” Ryan wrote. “The NWBA’s lack of acknowledgement of the complaints expressed by its most elite athletes has compounded our fear and frustration, culminating in the unimaginable re-selection of the same head coach.”

Eaton, who made her Paralympic debut in Tokyo, detailed instances of body shaming and a weight loss competition initiated by Johnson. She wrote that she was previously quiet about Johnson’s behavior because “I felt like sharing my story would hurt my chances to go to a Paralympic Games.”

In announcing his resignation, Johnson issued the following statement through the NWBA:

“For the benefit of myself and my family, which has been under a vicious character attack while an investigation had yet to start, I am stepping away from the U.S. National Team after 31 years of dedication. I will cooperate with the U.S. Center for SafeSport investigation and believe there will be no findings; however, at this time I don’t want this situation to get in the way of the progress we have made within the women’s program or the NWBA.”

While Johnson’s resignation brings some closure to players, questions remain as to why the NWBA had re-hired him for the 2022 season given the alleged complaints.

Prior to Johnson’s resignation, the NWBA published a statement on Thursday that referenced the organization’s commitment to upholding the U.S. Center for SafeSport Code, as well the selection process used to hire Johnson. The NWBA’s statement did not respond to any of the specific allegations of emotional misconduct. After publication of this story, the NWBA replied to On Her Turf’s request for comment (see below).

Desiree “Desi” Miller, who competed for the U.S. women’s wheelchair basketball team at both the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics, said in an Instagram video that she believes the “toxic environment” extends beyond Johnson and blamed the NWBA for silencing player voices.

“Disabled women are one of the most unheard populations out there and enough is enough,” Miller said in her video.

In a phone interview, Eaton said she had previously tried to address her complaints to the NWBA. After the 2018 World Wheelchair Basketball Championship tournament in Hamburg, Germany, she said all 12 members of the team signed a letter to the NWBA that laid out their complaints about Johnson’s behavior.

On Thursday, Stephanie Wheeler, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist and head coach of the women’s wheelchair basketball team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, announced via Instagram that she had resigned from her position on the NWBA’s Board of Directors.

“This most recent coaching hire and the NWBA’s silence in response to the allegations are born out of a systemic issue of gender discrimination within the NWBA, sport, and society at large,” Wheeler wrote.

Her post continued: “The NWBA has a long history of gender discrimination in its coaching ranks, most evidently at the national team level. Since the inception of the women’s wheelchair basketball competition at the 1968 Tel Aviv Paralympic Games, there have only been two women to be named the head coach of our national team. Women, particularly disabled women, in our organization have been systemically pushed out of coaching at the highest level of our sport.”

Update: NWBA CEO Will Waller replied to On Her Turf’s request for comment via email on Friday night. Waller said that the NWBA was aware of the SafeSport investigation – “with limited knowledge of the allegations” – when it announced Johnson’s re-hiring, but noted that “per the U.S. Center for SafeSport Code (Section V.D.), we are unable to limit someone’s participation in sport when they are the subject of an investigation that is under the jurisdiction of the Center.”

Waller, who was hired as CEO in 2019, also said the NWBA has scheduled an open forum for next Wednesday, December 15, where members will be able to voice their concerns.

UPDATE: U.S. wheelchair basketball team hires Christina Schwab to serve as new coach

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC