by Irvin Muchnick
The litany of allegations against University of California-Berkeley women’s swimming coach Teri McKeever – a one-time head Olympic coach and probably the sport’s most successful female coach ever – is not a story I saw coming. For many years, one of my main sources inside swimming was a coach who extolled the uniquely benign culture of the Cal program while also advising me, generally, “The abuse problem in swimming has no bottom.”
Today McKeever is the new non-bottom. The excellent account earlier this week of complaints against her, by Scott Reid of the Orange County Register, at https://www.ocregister.com/2022/05/24/cal-swimmers-allege-coach-teri-mckeever-bullied-and-verbally-abused-them-for-years/, makes a compelling case that the coach has been a decades-long bully who verbally demeaned her charges, body-shamed them, threw things at them, blew past their injuries, and even drove some of them to contemplate suicide. (The article says McKeever even mocked one of them after the swimmer directly told her she wanted to kill herself.) Yet another “toxic culture.”
There’s everything here except the classic genital-penetrating sexual abuse part. And there are multiple and redundant first-person accusers of this pattern of misconduct – as many as 20 of them – and some are on the record. In a sports world rife with abusive male authority figures, we also must note, this time, the evidence of older-woman-on-younger-women mistreatment, if not crime.
In the familiar immediate 72-hour fallout cycle, also reported by the Orange County Register‘s Reid, there was a futile attempt by McKeever to tough it out, which was foiled when more than half the team walked out of a practice that had begun with her robotic reading of a bland statement. The university said it couldn’t comment, before it could – an announcement that it was placing McKeever on paid administrative leave and hiring the Munger, Tolles & Olson law firm to conduct what is being called an “external investigation.”
Ah yes. The external investigation – first cousin of the vaunted “independent investigation,” which all of us who have followed these types of scandals have seen deployed routinely by sports organizations and supervising institutions as weapons of mass distraction. Rarely do these scenarios happen and harden across time without substantial suspicion, at minimum, that higher-up athletic department and/or central administration figures were privy to ugly details yet did nothing. We’ll find out whether the Munger, Tolles & Olson team proceeds to bring a spotlight to their task, or another coat of whitewash.
Yesterday, through intermediaries, some of the current Cal swimmers told me that the McKeever investigation was being deliberately set up with what one of them called a “passive” structure. By this, the swimmer said she meant, “Those with complaints need to come forward [to the investigators]. There will not be an effort to reach out to anyone.”
In an email, I asked Hailyn Chen, one of the law firm’s two point persons, to comment on this quote and to expound on her investigation’s methods. Chen wrote back, “Please direct all media inquiries to [Cal spokesperson] Dan Mogulof.”
Mogulof has not responded to my email to him. As they say, it’s a living.
[Editor’s note: On Sunday, May 29, Mogulof provided this comment: “As a matter of law and policy we cannot comment on any particular Human Resources investigation. However, as a part of our typical investigative process, the campus proactively reaches out to individuals who may have information relevant to the investigation. The same would typically hold true for an external firm we engage to conduct an investigation we oversee.”]
Concussion Inc. readers know that my experience covering “independent investigations” of sports coach malfeasance extends beyond swimming and, indeed, prominently includes UC Berkeley itself in the sport of football. Cal is where, in 2014, walk-on football player Ted Agu died of an exertional attack associated with his known condition of carrying the sickle cell trait, in a maniacal offseason drill directed by Damon Harrington, the strength and conditioning assistant under then head football coach Sonny Dykes.
In California Public Records Act litigation that daylighted a new batch of internal university documents exposing the cover-up of the circumstances and public relations management of the unprosecuted Agu murder (there was a multimillion-dollar civil lawsuit settlement with the family), a judge ruled that I was the prevailing party against the university, entitling my attorney Roy Gordet to reimbursement of his fees across five years. The parties negotiated the fees to a figure of $125,000. Cal then appealed the lower court judgment to the state Court of Appeal. Following briefing, in which the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press weighed in with a “friend of the court” submission on my behalf, oral arguments are upcoming.
After Agu died, a whistleblower player took his concerns about Harrington’s lethal coaching methods, language, and culture to a deputy athletic director, a senior vice chancellor, and ultimately the campus police. Yet the ensuing “independent investigation” did not interview the whistleblower, and may not have interviewed any of the players who were poised to say negative things about a football program in which a teammate had died. The players chosen to be interviewed were said to have been plucked from a random computer-generated lottery.
University emails revealed that the co-author of the “independent review” of the strength and conditioning program (which, to little surprise, would conclude that it was as pure as the driven snow) was an athletic department crony from UC Davis who spent exactly one day interviewing football players. During this hard labor, the no-holds-barred investigator, Dr. Jeffrey Tanji, was put up at the posh Claremont Hotel – where, before driving down from Davis, he took pains to make sure his wife would be allowed to join him.