Female college athletes from across the US say they’ve been bullied, manipulated, and psychologically abused by their coaches
- Insider spoke with 17 former college athletes from 10 universities around the US about their negative experiences with coaches. A pattern emerged of psychological and emotional abuse in women's sports.
- The long-term damage of psychological abuse can be severe, but colleges have seemed unwilling or unable to change coaching in their women's sports programs, experts said.
- The colleges that host the three programs explored in detail below — Cornell University, Northern Kentucky University, and Ohio Dominican University — conducted investigations or reviews in response to allegations of abuse, none of which concluded there was wrongdoing, representatives said.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Hillary Dole's first Toque Friday ended with a broken nose and a bloody face.
The event, she told Insider, was an annual tradition for the Cornell University softball team when she joined as a freshman in 2017. All new recruits were instructed to pull beanie hats over their eyes and stand in a line. Then, while they were effectively blindfolded, their teammates and coach yelled at them to run.
"It was confusing, chaotic, intimidating, and I didn't know what to do," Dole told Insider. "I ran because the culture [in sports] is such that you just kind of do what you're told — that's just how it is when you play on a team. And so I ended up running 40 yards face-first into a brick wall."
Dole assumed she wouldn't be put in danger by the team, which is still led by coach Julie Farlow. Photos seen by Insider show Dole's face covered in blood, as well as fractured teeth. She said she also suffered a severe concussion that left her with headaches and sensitivity to light, which the coach forced her to play through on the brightly lit field.
This was just one chapter in the story of Dole's college softball career, which she said was full of bullying, intimidation, and a blatant lack of care from her coach. She and several other former and current players detailed their time under Farlow from 2016 to 2019 in a Cornell Daily Sun article last year. Farlow did not respond to Insider's requests for comment.
But the problem goes beyond Cornell. Through interviews with 17 former college athletes at seven schools, information from previous investigations, and insight from experts, Insider found evidence of a pattern of psychological and emotional abuse in women's college sports going back to 2012.
The NCAA, which functions as the regulatory body for US college sports, declined to comment on the issue of psychological abuse by coaches.
College athletes said they faced personal attacks and insults and were 'treated like dogs'
In March 2019, Taryn Taugher wrote an article for the Odyssey about her time in Northern Kentucky University's women's basketball program, where she said head coach Camryn Whitaker humiliated, intimidated, and manipulated her and others so much that eight players quit the team.
She told Insider she started writing the article on the bus home after her final game, using three years' worth of notes she'd made about Whitaker's behavior, which she said included personal attacks about players' families, personalities, work ethic, and bodies.
The players she didn't like were "disposable" to her, Taugher said, adding that the coach would pit the cliques against each other.
"She didn't treat us as people," Taugher said. "She also had her favorites who she treated special, like they were her babies; they were her daughters. And then there was us on the other side who she just did not like, who she treated like dogs basically."
Taugher said Whitaker would split the team in half "and made sure that we stayed split" by encouraging players to get into "fistfights." She said Whitaker would also tell certain women on the team not to hang out with each other because they were "bad people" and came from "bad" families.
Some women on the team didn't want to do anything because they were so miserable, and would sit in their rooms all day, she said. "We just seemed timid. We didn't have confidence anymore," Taugher said. "It was like she sucked everything."
Another former Northern Kentucky player, Kasey Uetrecht, told Insider that she felt mistreated right from the beginning and that things escalated so much that she'd cry every night before practice.
"I found myself never wanting to make eye contact" with Whitaker "and never wanting to be left alone with her," Uetrecht said. "It was just an accumulation of belittling, scolding, and making sure that you knew that you were inferior to her and there was nothing you could do about it."
Uetrecht said Whitaker reprimanded her for hanging out with her teammate Shar'Rae Davis. When Davis, who had ulcerative colitis, would go to the bathroom in the middle of practice, the rest of the team had to run until she got out, Uetrecht said.
"When I sat next to Shar'Rae on the bus and then on the bench, my playing time was cut," she said. "It was known that anyone that associated with Shar'Rae would be punished."
Davis told Insider that Whitaker isolated her from teammates, even moving players away from her on the bench during practice and placing her into different hotel rooms away from her friends while on the road. Davis said Whitaker would blame her for losing games and punish her by not playing her if she ever had to take a day off from practice to recover.
"People are clueless to how malicious she was," Davis said. "People heard the story, and NKU did nothing. Absolutely nothing."
Uetrecht said she ended up leaving the team when she realized she would hate basketball forever if she stayed. She said she could no longer handle the humiliation and had to leave what she felt was a toxic environment that was breaking her.
"The darkness and sadness had finally overtaken any shred of strength I had left in me," she said. "I have never experienced any kind of sadness and anxiety like that before."
A review of Whitaker's conduct — conducted by DBL Law and seen by Insider — concluded that "the concern of emotional abuse by Whitaker is unfounded" and instead blamed "the pressure with classes and being a Division I athlete" and "personality clashes." The report said Whitaker's comments "cannot be described as personal attacks" and came from her wanting the team to do well.
"Although players may not agree with the comments, they are not abusive," the report said.
In a statement to Insider, NKU said that the well-being of students is "a top priority." Its athletic director, Ken Bothof, said he was "confident" in Whitaker's leadership of the program.
In a separate statement to Insider, Whitaker said she cares deeply about the women in the basketball program "both as student-athletes and people."
"As we work to build a program everyone can be proud of and support, this experience gives us the opportunity to continue to reflect on the growth and development as coaches and players in our program," she said.
Jennifer Fekpe 'took away everything from us'
Anna Ficker's college volleyball career took a turn when Jennifer Fekpe was promoted from assistant to head coach of Ohio Dominican University's program.
"We were always kind of scared of her when she was the assistant coach," Ficker, played for the team for four years, until she graduated in 2019, told Insider.
She said Fekpe would put them in a "hot seat" where they had to listen to judgmental comments about themselves from her and their teammates. She wouldn't give players regular meals when they were on the road, Ficker said, instead handing out a clementine or a bag of chips for the entire day, with no opportunity for players to buy or pack their own food.
Fekpe would call players "ungrateful" and "a cancer to the team," Ficker said, and frequently pit them against each other. As a result, 17 players quit, and at least seven sought counseling, Ficker said. Five players described similar experiences in interviews with Fox 28 in November 2018.
"She took away everything from us," Ficker said, adding that the team members weren't allowed to have social media or go home during the season and were put on restrictive diets. "She just controlled every single part of our lives."
Bailey Line told Insider that Fekpe had "a lack of care for our physical well-being." She said she was yelled at for not being a "team player" when she contracted mono and skipped practice to see a doctor. Line said Fekpe also paid no attention when Line's teammate Katelyn Budreau collapsed during one of the punishment exercises Fekpe was keen on.
"We were all telling her to get up, and she couldn't talk straight. Her eyes were rolling back into her head," Line said. "And then Jen came over and was like, 'She'll be fine,' even though she was clearly not fine."
Budreau recalled what happened to Fox 28.
"I remember looking out and seeing Coach Jen smiling with the trainer and I remember like, why is she smiling?" she said. "The fact that I could've died that day for not responding to an email just blows my mind."
In response to the allegations, a representative for ODU told Insider that "the safety and wellbeing of our students is our top priority."
"In 2018, after looking into the concerns voiced by this group of now former student-athletes, we were not able to substantiate the allegations made of illegal conduct," the representative said, adding that Fekpe is no longer associated with the university "due to reasons unrelated to these accusations."
"We are unable to comment any further due to this being a personnel matter," the representative said.
Fekpe did not respond to Insider's request for comment.
College athletics can create 'the perfect storm' for abuse
Ben Tepper, a professor of organizational psychology at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, told Insider that college sports often provide "the perfect storm" of circumstances that can lead to abuse.
"There is no more vulnerable population than college athletes," he said. "There's a leader under tremendous pressure, incredible stress on them, combined with a huge community of vulnerable targets. There's no other industry that can replicate that."
While investigations into misconduct can look thorough — some universities that have undertaken such investigations said they interviewed dozens of current and former players and staffers and dedicated many hours to looking through evidence — they might not be thorough in reality.
Shannon Thomas, a trauma therapist, said that the people conducting these investigations are most often trained in law and procedure — they might not know what psychological and emotional abuse looks like and might overlook it.
"It would be like having a foot doctor try to diagnose brain cancer," Thomas said. "They don't even know what they're looking for."
While some investigations can end with discipline for the coach — Loyola University Chicago parted ways with Sheryl Swoopes, its women's basketball coach and a former WNBA star, in July 2016 after players came forward with allegations of mistreatment — many other coaches who have been the focus of an investigation remain.
A representative for Swoopes declined to comment on the investigation, except to say Swoopes resigned from her position.
"It's my hope that the student-athletes will be provided a full explanation of what has unfolded," Swoopes said in a statement released in 2016. "As students, they deserve truth and transparency. All I can say at this point is that I do feel vindicated. I was 100 percent pleased with what I thought clearly supported all I've ever tried to provide as a coach, an employee and the woman of character my mother has raised."
Manipulation and punishment can erode confidence
Hillary Dole's problems didn't end after the hazing incident that broke her nose. While she recovered from her injuries, Julie Farlow told her she was falling behind by not attending practice, Dole said.
She said she returned to the bright stadium lights during practice before she was ready. The headaches quickly became too much, and she told her trainer she couldn't spend any more time there, she said. In response, she said, Farlow got "unreasonably mad" and sent her angry texts about her lack of discipline.
Dole said Farlow didn't speak to her for weeks when she did come back to practice; Dole said she felt it was punishment for her injuries. She said Farlow didn't let her play, telling her she was "too behind."
Dole's father, Chris, was appalled by how his daughter was treated. Over time, he said, he saw his daughter's confidence and spirit dim — a transformation he said was heart-wrenching.
"She is not the same person right now as she was when she walked into the doors of Cornell," Chris Dole told Insider. "The Hillary that started at Cornell was a strong, very confident person … Now she questions herself at every turn. I think it absolutely has broken her."
He said that while he would never excuse it, he could perhaps understand a culture of abuse at schools like the University of Illinois and the University of Maryland where accusations have been documented and where football players can go on to play professionally.
"This is an instance where [softball] is a sport that no one is going to play professionally. It's a fringe sport. It's Ivy League," he said. "So I do not understand — if there's even a hint of something that is not right, why you would keep this coach on?"
'It was just like we were pieces of a puzzle to her. We were never people.'
Another player on the Cornell softball team, Olivia Lam, said Farlow had little sympathy for her injuries. She told Insider that Farlow encouraged her to cheat on the concussion test that would clear her for playing again in her freshman year. After that, she said, things only got worse.
Farlow "really started to push the message that winning is everything, and she hates losing," Lam told Insider. Farlow pushed her to play through her injury, Lam said, adding that Farlow told the whole team there's "no such thing" as an overuse injury.
Lam told Insider that she went to rehab and got cortisone shots but that Farlow told her the pain was a result of her not training and practicing enough.
Lam finally discovered she had a torn rotator cuff that required surgery to correct.
Lam also said her mental health wasn't respected. She said Farlow downplayed her panic attacks and told her she wasn't "normal" for struggling with anxiety.
Sarah Murray, another player, said she received the same treatment. During her time at Cornell, "there weren't people really advocating for you to get better and do it the right ways," Murray told Insider. "Our trainers and the coaching staff really didn't do a lot for us, and it kind of felt like we were blamed for it."
She said that her mental health was "not good at all" while she was at school and that she started going to counseling because she was "in a constant state of fear" and was "nervous all the time."
Farlow "found out about the counseling and stuff, and she said I seemed like I was a different person because of my anxiety," Murray said, "that it seemed like something had changed in me and I wasn't reliable as a player because she didn't know who was going to show up that day."
Another former player, Tori Togashi, told Insider she was also cast aside by Farlow after she tore her hip labrum. She said that when she told Farlow she was in pain during a practice, Farlow told her to play through it so she would become "more familiar with it."
"I understand that you have to think of me as one of your athletes and your job is dependent on us winning, but there was just no compassion," Togashi said. "It was just like we were pieces of a puzzle to her. We were never people."
From 2016 to 2018, 11 players quit the softball team under Farlow, including Dole, Lam, and Murray.
John Carberry, the senior director of media relations and news at Cornell, said the university retained an independent investigator to conduct a review of the softball program in spring 2019.
"The investigation identified both support for and criticisms of the head coach and program," he said. "Significantly, and contrary to the allegations, the investigator determined that neither the head coach nor any program staff member compromised the health and safety of our student-athletes in violation of applicable policy."
Carberry also referred to a letter to the editor published by The Cornell Daily Sun in May 2019 that was signed by over 50 former players and staffers and expressed support for Farlow. (Chris Dole pointed out in a response that only four of the players who signed actually played under Farlow.)
A new public understanding of abuse
Behavior such as verbal abuse, pushing athletes to play through injuries, and using long and difficult practice drills as punishment have been common — and almost always excused — in high-value men's sports. In 2018, for example, following the death of Jordan McNair, an offensive lineman at the University of Maryland, during a drill, an external report found "a culture where problems festered because too many players feared speaking out."
But similar problems in women's college sports have traditionally received less widespread public attention.
Tim Nevius, a sports attorney and former NCAA investigator, said abuse might be rife among smaller women's sports because the desire to win games and contracts is now much higher. Softball, for example, is starting to make money. New pressure can lead to problems.
"There is very little attention given to the abuse and mistreatment of college athletes, which, in my experience as an attorney, is pervasive," he said.
Nevius founded the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative, an organization that provides college athletes with legal representation they haven't received from their colleges or the NCAA.
"They have no voice. They have no ability to address abuse and this treatment at the hands of their coaches," he said. "The coaches have virtually unchecked power and wield it to draw the most out of the athletes that they can for their own benefit."
Ashley Stirling, a researcher who has covered emotional abuse in sports coaching, told Insider that the perceived high numbers of reports of abuse in women's sports could also stem from an evolution in the public's understanding of what mistreatment can look like. The #MeToo movement may have encouraged athletes to come forward with their stories, she said.
Yelling and berating in coaching has long been spun as a way to build mental toughness and achieve success, Stirling said, but this "tough coaching" defense fails players all over the country.
Stirling said abusive behavior could be normalized when a team is doing well because everyone accepts it as part of the sporting environment. It might become a noticeable problem only when a team starts to lose games.
"When top athletes are supposedly thriving, it just further supports the misconception that it works," Stirling said. "However, if they're not performing as well, maybe they're not the best on the team anymore, the behaviors start having an increasingly negative effect on them."
Coaches are not required to have any formal training and need only to have played the sport in college to be a candidate, so a vicious cycle may continue, she said. Hiding behind this "tough coaching" defense means coaches stay in their positions and continue to damage the mental and even physical health of young people.
Patterns of abuse can also persist throughout a survivor's life, Stirling said. "It can manifest in body-image challenges, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem," and post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.
The complaints at Cornell, NKU, and ODU are by no means the only ones
Players have spoken to other news outlets about allegations of mistreatment at programs like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's softball team and Rutgers University's softball team.
Meanwhile, Insider heard stories from players, both men and women, from more than 10 public and private institutions across the US. They all had something in common: They wanted the culture to change for their teammates who are still involved and for future students so nobody else has to go through what they went through.
"I just want my teammates to be in a safe environment, because I did not feel safe with that coach," Taugher said of Camryn Whitaker. "I want them to be in a positive winning environment. I want them to love the game of basketball that we all loved when we were little."
Hillary Dole said softball had always been a point of pride for her, but when she got to college, it became the worst part of her life.
"A lot of playing in high school is looking forward to college and trying to get recruited, and you make this huge decision partly based on where you're going to play," she said. "And then you get there and it's not at all what you expected. In fact, it's the opposite."
Chris Dole said he was proud of his daughter, even if nothing comes of her telling her story.
"This is not OK that it happened to her," he said. "And even if no one else will support it, at least she knows that she tried to fight."
Have you experienced abuse from a sports coach at your college or university? Contact Insider's senior reporter Lindsay Dodgson via email ([email protected]) or Twitter DM (@linzasaur). Sources can be kept anonymous.
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