Forced to Play While Injured?

A former University of Illinois football player tweets that coach and staff forced athletes to play while injured. University promises investigation, but is backing the coach.

May 12, 2015

In a series of impassioned tweets, a former University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign football player said Sunday that the university's coaching staff has created a culture of mistreatment that pressures athletes into playing while injured.

The tweets, written by Simon Cvijanovic, a former linebacker at Illinois, attracted much attention, prompting a response from the university on Monday. In a phone call with reporters, Mike Thomas, the university's athletic director, expressed surprise at the accusations.

There will be a review of the claims, Thomas said, though he declined to describe the scope or timeline of such an investigation, and he said that the university does not plan on releasing a report of its findings. He described the Twitter comments as a "personal attack" on Tim Beckman, the university's head football coach. Thomas backed Beckman on Monday, saying that the coach puts the welfare of his players “above anything else.”

But in his tweets, Cvijanovic said that Beckman and his staff pushed the athlete into playing with an injured shoulder and knee and lied to him about how long his recovery would take. He said that the coaching staff frequently berated injured players, threatening to take away their scholarships if they did not return to practice quickly after an injury.

“I got instructions and I followed them,” he said. “If I didn't my life was made hell. So yes, they can force medical treatment and they do.”

Cvijanovic tweeted that athletic medical staff withheld information from him regarding the extent of his knee injury, and that he now faces a "lifetime of surgery" related to the deterioration of an injured muscle that was largely left untreated. The staff called hurt players derogatory names and dressed them in a rival team's colors during practices, the former player said.

“If I'm hurt, I'm hurt,” he tweeted. “I don't need to be called a pussy to make me make bad decisions for my body.”

Cvijanovic also said that Beckman once “attacked” a player by kneeing him in the back, though Thomas said Monday that the coach was simply breaking up a fight between teammates. In addition, the former player alleged that Beckman and the medical staff mishandled his younger brother’s type 1 diabetes. The brother -- who joined the team this season and who, Cvijanovic said, lost a dangerous amount of weight while playing under Beckman due to the medical and coaching staff's incompetence -- was recently given a medical, rather than athletic, scholarship due to complications related to the disease.

The elder Cvijanovic quit the team this season after his most recent shoulder injury. He temporarily withdrew from the university but has since returned on an academic scholarship.

“Simon Cvijanovic was a valued member of the University of Illinois football team,” Beckman said in a statement. “He chose to leave the team during the 2014 regular season and withdrew from the university before the end of the semester. Upon his return for the spring semester, we have continued to support him with medical care, an academic scholarship and academic advising. We cannot make any student accept our support. We wish him success in completing his degree, and we wish him the best of success in whatever he pursues after he graduates."

On Monday, Thomas said that no other players have come to the university with similar complaints, and that most players describe Beckman’s coaching style as creating a familylike atmosphere. The university’s medical staff is “well versed” in handling a variety of medical issues, Thomas added, including diabetes. He said he could not comment more specifically on some of Cvijanovic's allegations regarding the medical team, citing privacy laws.

“We do exit interviews with all of our seniors and their feedback doesn’t correspond with what we’re hearing from Simon,” Thomas said.

A number of current and former Illinois football players (and fans) also defended Beckman on Twitter Monday, chastising Cvijanovic for quitting and telling him to “man up.” Some college athletes from other institutions, however, praised Cvijanovic for bringing attention to what they said are common but rarely discussed issues in college athletics. One former player tweeting his support was a member of Beckman’s team from when he coached at the University of Toledo prior to coaching at Illinois.

“I played for Toledo under Beckman and we had the exact same issues,” Andrew Weber, a former place kicker at Toledo, tweeted at Cvijanovic. “Thanks for standing up!”


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