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Man admits racial harassment of Utah women's NCAA basketball team

Alissa Pili #35 and Jenna Johnson #22 of the Utah Utes react after a basket against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the second round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament in Spokane, Wash. on March 25, 2024. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Steph Chambers
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Alissa Pili #35 and Jenna Johnson #22 of the Utah Utes react after a basket against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the second round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament in Spokane, Wash. on March 25, 2024. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

BOISE, Idaho — Prosecutors in Idaho say they won't bring charges against a man who was accused of shouting a racial slur at players on the University of Utah women's basketball team.

The incident outside the team's hotel during the NCAA women's basketball tournament in March drew national headlines as it also occurred in a region long associated with white supremacist groups.

The harassment first surfaced during a tournament press conference where University of Utah Women's Head Coach Lynne Rogers said men in pickups revving their engines shouted the N-word at her players outside a team dinner where they were staying in Coeur d' Alene, Idaho - about a thirty minute drive from Spokane, Washington where the team played Gonzaga in the tournament.

Members of the team told police that someone in a truck displaying a confederate flag yelled racial slurs as they and staff walked to dinner. They said that truck and a second were waiting as the team returned from dinner and followed them back to their hotel.

"It was really upsetting," said Rogers at the March press conference. "And for our players and staff to not feel safe in an NCAA Tournament environment, that's messed up."

Now, after two months of an investigation that included FBI assistance and reviewing CCTV footage, authorities say they questioned a local high school student who admitted to yelling the racial slur. Police said they contacted up to 100 people who they believed may have witnessed the incident.

But in a charging document, the Coeur d' Alene city attorney concludes there is insufficient evidence and that the student's use of the epithet, "could not meet the legal requirements for any of the narrow categories of unprotected speech."

The NCAA says it worked with the Utah team and tournament site host Gonzaga University to get it extra security, as well as the University of California-Irvine women's team which was also staying in Coeur d'Alene. Utah's team was relocated to a hotel in Spokane the next day. UC-Irvine's team returned home after being eliminated from competition.

"I strongly condemn the appalling treatment of the female college athletes who are visiting Coeur d'Alene prior to the beginning of the basketball tournament in Spokane," said Coeur d'Alene Mayor Jim Hammond at a hastily called press conference in March.

Coeur D'Alene and northern Idaho became known as a haven for extremism and racist groups in the 1970s and '80s when the Aryan Nations relocated its headquarters there. Skinheads held parades in the 1990s. Activity declined following a lawsuit that largely dissolved the organization. But two summers ago 31 members of the white nationalist group Patriot Front were arrested there, with plans to disrupt a queer pride event.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.