Idaho police are investigating racist harassment against Utah women’s basketball team

Police in Coeur d’Alene, a northern Idaho town that a local public advocacy organization has described as a “safe haven” for white supremacist groups, are investigating after the University of Utah’s women’s basketball coach said her team was targeted in a series of “racial hate crimes” while in town for the NCAA Tournament last week.

Mayor Jim Hammond apologized to the University of Utah women’s basketball team during a news conference on Tuesday. The apology came after Utah athletics officials said a driver revved their engine and yelled the N-word at the team, band members and cheerleaders as they went out to dinner Thursday evening. Later, as the group left the restaurant, two trucks came near them and the drivers revved their engines and yelled the N-word in another instance. 

“We condemn, in the strongest terms, those horrendous acts of hatred,” Tony Stewart, of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, said at the news conference. “If the perpetrators can be found, we call upon them to be prosecuted. There is no place in our communities or in the United states of America for such horrific acts.”

Police Chief Lee White said local law enforcement received a report about the incident the night it happened and are working with the FBI to speak with the victims and witnesses to determine which state or federal laws apply to the situation. He cited federal law, a state law against malicious harassment and a statute against disorderly conduct.

In a statement obtained by NBC News, an FBI spokesperson said, “We are aware of the incident in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and are in regular contact with local authorities. If, in the course of the local investigation, information comes to light of a potential federal violation, the FBI is prepared to investigate.”

The team was in the area to take part in the NCAA tournament in Spokane, Washington, hosted by Gonzaga University, but had to stay in Idaho due to a lack of hotel space. Utah coach Lynne Roberts revealed the incident to reporters on Monday.

“Racism is real and it happens and it’s awful,” Roberts said. “For our players, whether they are white, Black, green, whatever — no one knew how to handle it. And it was really upsetting. And for our players and staff to not feel safe in an NCAA tournament environment, it’s messed up.”

Roberts added that the NCAA and Gonzaga helped move the team to a different hotel. Neither Roberts nor the women’s athletics department immediately responded to a request for comment. Gonzaga and NCAA officials along with Idaho Gov. Brad Little swiftly issued statements apologizing to the team and condemning the harassment. 

Coeur d’Alene and northern Idaho have become known for its extremism and proliferation of racist groups. The Aryan Nations and other white supremacist groups have terrorized the region since at least the 1970s, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. In 2022, members of a racist hate group called Patriot Front marched through downtown Coeur d’Alene. Thirty-one of them were arrested on suspicion of conspiring a riot, according to The Spokesman Review

A local far-right activist showed up to Tuesday’s news conference, yelling about the Patriot Front incident. He claimed to be a member of the media but would not say which news outlet he was part of. Attendants at the event booed him. 

The Idaho 97 Project, which opposes far-right extremism in the state, has called the region a “safe haven” for white supremacist hate groups. 

“We’ve always had extremism in Idaho on some level, going back to Richard Butler and some of those groups in Coeur d’Alene,” Mike Satz, then its executive director, said in 2022. He added to KMTV, “We also have a lot of people who are just moving into the state who are coming here because they see Idaho as a conservative bastion.”

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