A former women's basketball player at Southern Methodist University has filed suit in Dallas County against the university, alleging that a coach physically and mentally abused players.
Dai'Ja Thomas, who was named District 9-6A MVP, Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year, and Miss Basketball in Texas, claimed that coach Travis Mays pressured her to play with a severe knee injury and told team members to commit suicide, the lawsuit said.
Thomas is represented by Michelle Simpson Tuegel, a nationally known advocate for athletes and women, and her sister, attorney Maryssa Simpson.
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According to the lawsuit, Thomas began to suffer physically and mentally when Mays became her coach.
The lawsuit said Mays scolded players after a practice during the 2017-2018 season, saying "If you're not going to compete, you may as well kill yourselves," shocking players and causing a teammate whose father had recently died by suicide to burst into tears.
During the same season, Mays pressured Thomas to play despite a painful knee injury, the lawsuit said.
When Thomas informed coaching staff of her injury, Mays chastised her for what he deemed "disrespect." The lawsuit notes that Thomas never received an MRI, surgery, rest, or rehabilitation, and was instead given the bare minimum necessary to continue playing.
According to the lawsuit, Mays admitted to a parent that the pressure was intentional and that he hoped Thomas would "break down so she moves on."
Thomas now has continued knee pain and walks with a limp, the lawsuit said. When she underwent surgery to repair her knee in March 2019, she was informed that she had basically no cartilage and that her knee was beyond repair.
"I wanted to make basketball my life as a lot of my teammates have done, and as I had done since elementary school," Thomas said. "I thought I would be treated like a family member at SMU, instead my time there became a nightmare that severely impacted my dreams."
Thomas's injuries prevented her from pursuing a career in basketball, ruining her chances of playing overseas or for the WNBA.
"SMU, its doctor and Coach Mays created an abusive environment for women's basketball players where their bodies and their minds were broken down," Tuegel said. "This is sadly another example where performance is more important than the person and athlete behind it. This atmosphere and failure to properly treat injuries is what ultimately cost Dai'Ja Thomas her basketball career and what she felt like for some time ruined her life and dreams."