We all have chapters of our lives we’d rather keep unpublished.
–Lord Grantham in “Downton Abbey”, the BBC’s smash-hit Edwardian soap opera
On Tuesday, Deadspin.com published enough to fill a book on former University of Toledo head coach Kevin Hadsell, who suddenly resigned his position on January 24. It paints a picture of controlling, intimidating, and possibly coercive behavior towards members of his team, sometimes in a sexual manner. It says that he commonly used alcohol in inappropriate and even illegal settings, including practices and team travel, and at times provided it to his team members, including underage student-athletes. A companion article by the Toledo Blade mentions some things that Deadspin did not. You should read both. My reaction was a visceral one of disgust and anger.
Regular readers of this space know that I am a lifelong resident of the Toledo area, so I feel I must talk about this and tell what I know. My intent here is not to retell the stories told by Deadspin and The Blade, but to add context to both.
I should also note that on January 28, Hadsell contacted me to say that he would be releasing a statement telling his side of the story. He reiterated that on February 14, but as yet there has been nothing.
Much of the area’s running community is simultaneously unsurprised and shocked by what we read at Deadspin.
We are unsurprised because it is well-known that approximately a decade ago, Hadsell had a multi-year relationship with a former athlete (one that Hadsell admits). This athlete moved in with Hadsell more or less immediately after her college career ended, leading us all to presume that the relationship began while she was still on the team. (A student-coach relationship may or may not have been against university policy at the time, but it most certainly is now.) So when his resignation was announced, with the pointed statement that no NCAA rules violations had occurred, the widespread assumption was that another relationship was taking place.
I, and everyone I have yet spoken to, is shocked at the depth of the alleged problem and the length of time over which it took place. If you haven’t already read the Deadspin piece, you should. I’m certain that you will be shocked too.
The main differences between the Deadspin story and The Blade story is that the latter noted that Hadsell denies the existence of a current relationship with a former athlete, which is alleged to have begun while she was on the team, and also named Hadsell’s main accuser. The sports press has mainly taken the Deadspin article at its word, finding little reason to doubt the accuser. I similarly believe her, as she took significant risks by coming forward.
On a team trip in 2008
I spoke with a former member of the men’s cross country team at Toledo, which Hadsell also coached, and he believes the accuser over Hadsell. He also corroborated the other elements of the Deadspin story: alcohol use on team trips and at practices, furnishing alcohol for athletes, erratic and inappropriate behavior, lack of appropraite personal boundaries, and showering attention on his “in crowd”, as he says Hadsell called them, while essentially ignoring everyone else.
How could the team be successful?
Given the stress and intimidation and overall erratic behavior described, how could the team be as successful as it was?
The Toledo women’s cross country program qualified to the NCAA Championships for three consecutive years, making them a regional power but not a national power. Still, this is highly successful for women’s cross country in the Mid-American Conference, as those three NCAA qualifiers represent half of all women’s national qualifying teams in MAC history. This year, Toledo achieved the highest national ranking ever by a MAC women’s cross country team. The Toledo women’s program was a basement-dweller for pretty much its entire existence before Hadsell came to town, making this a remarkable turnaround.
Just because they were good, though, doesn’t mean they couldn’t have been better. For example, Toledo has yet to win a MAC championship in either indoor or outdoor track. While the Toledo women have had the best run of success in MAC women’s history, some men’s cross country programs in the MAC had had much more success during Hadsell’s tenure at Toledo. The Toledo men’s cross country program, which Hadsell also coached, has typically been at or near the bottom of the MAC (although, to be fair, it is hampered by the elimination of the men’s track program in 2003).
One thing that the bizarre management style attributed to Hadsell could have had going for it was an almost cult-like status. A speaker at coaching clinic I attended several years ago said that athletes “must have an unshatterable belief in themselves, their training, and their coach”. The kind of loyalty Deadspin says he demanded from his athletes would have provided the last two, if not the first.
There’s another and possibly more important issue as well. What neither Deadspin nor The Blade mentioned is the presence of an assistant cross country coach, which Hadsell has always had, going through several during his tenure. The most notable of Hadsell’s assistants was Sara Vergote, a former Toledo runner who was hired in 2008. It should not escape your notice that Toledo’s greatest successes came during her time on staff. She resigned on September 19, 2012, to take a similar position at Iowa State. (Vergote declined to comment for this story.)
According to the previously mentioned former member of the men’s team at Toledo, Vergote was the glue that held things together. This person says she did much of the coaching and workout management, especially when Hadsell appeared inebriated, and attempted to manage Hadsell’s behavior as well. My source also said that after her September departure is when things really began to spiral out of control. I worked with Vergote when announcing Toledo’s home meets, and I agree that she was organized and thorough and appeared to be headed for big things. Others I talked to included Vergote’s acquaintances and collegiate competitors, and all had nothing but positive things to say about her.
Didn’t I work with Hadsell?
Yes, some. I am the public address announcer at all Toledo home meets (a job I also do at all meets at Bowling Green State University and many local high school meets). I was a regular guest on his weekly radio show, and I covered a few Toledo cross country meets.
Hadsell and I have not always gotten along. Let’s just say that for about ten years, he was not a fan of my work and was not shy about sharing that opinion. He mended fences just before the 2011 cross country season, when Toledo hosted the NCAA Great Lakes Regional. I always thought that Hadsell had simply decided that I was of more use to him as a friend than as a foe, and I never trusted him. If this sounds like I’m trying to distance myself from him…well, wouldn’t you?
I did think that Hadsell had grown up a bit from his wilder days (which I no longer believe). I thought this because of selfless and challenging actions he took on behalf of his sister’s three children, which are described at length in a 2012 Toledo Blade article. The character described in the Deadspin article has few if any redeeming qualities, but this article shows a different side of the man. All human beings are complex, neither all good or all bad, and this is a gentle reminder of that. Some of his charm is genuine.
Did we really not know?
I can’t speak for many others, but I didn’t. My source on the men’s team said that while everyone knew about Hadsell’s relationship with an athlete a decade ago (one to which Hadsell admits), no one on the team knew about the current multi-year relationship described by Deadspin (one that Hadsell vehemently denies).
Both stories, however, refer to an anonymous tip to the athletic department, one made on September 21, 2012. It was not made by the main accuser in the articles and that accuser did not know who the tipster was. Two uncoordinated individuals acting on their own and making the same accusation is fairly damning.
I suspect few if any others in the local running community had any suspicions either, and I think this for one major reason. Dave’s Running Shop is the oldest specialty running store in Ohio and has now grown to a northwest Ohio chain of four stores. Last fall, Dave’s signed a three-year-contract as official sponsor of the University of Toledo track and cross country programs. Owner Jamie Mason is neither a fool nor ignorant of the community’s knowledge, and would not have knowingly spent money to be associated with a program on the verge of major national scandal.
Much of the poor behavior described as taking place in Toledo (as opposed to on team trips) happened late at night and in or around bars. Most adult runners don’t live that lifestyle, being much more likely to be up at 5am hitting the bricks than to be out after midnight. While in the same city (and in some cases the same neighborhoods), the adult running community’s lifestyle meant we mostly existed in a different world.
Also, the University of Toledo is a bit different than many other universities. While it has more on-campus housing than it used to, it’s still mainly a commuter campus and situated in the most densely populated part of a large city. This means that student life is more integrated into the city as a whole than at many other campuses. There are places where a 40-year-old man in the same bars as college-aged women is odd enough to be notable, but Toledo is not one of them for the reasons above.
Cities know how to keep their secrets because it’s so much easier to remain anonymous in a crowd. In a smaller and more typical college town, it’s a bit harder for actions of coaches of even the minor athletic programs to escape notice. I’d say that in Bowling Green, where I ran and went to college, I would find it unlikely that a coach and a young woman could have had repeated encounters and kept it a secret for a significant length of time.
I am not a lawyer, but I have a few friends with enough knowledge to comment on the legalities of various issues (or lack thereof).
In his role as head coach, Hadsell may have engaged in sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, in multiple ways.
Attorney Michael Dylan Brennan, of Cleveland, Ohio, offered the following analysis:
There are lots of possible legal issues here. I will say this just off the cuff, and know that it is not legal advice, as this is based solely on the Deadspin article with the assumption that the facts set forth in the story are true:
You may have a claim for sexual discrimination or harassment even if sexual overtures are not made directly to you. “Andrea” here, even if the coach never created a “quid pro quo” situation where her place on the team was secured only by sexual favors, could still claim sexual discrimination or harassment because of the atmosphere created by the coach, especially where he was having a sexual relationship with another member of the team. Similar to a more traditional workplace, where the boss is sleeping with one of his subordinates, not only might that subordinate a victim of sexual discrimination, but the other subordinates may be victims as well, for several reasons, one of which is that they are denied the benefit of being evaluated/rewarded on their merits so long as there is someone who is presumably getting opportunities they aren’t due to the improper sexual relationship.
These athletes went to Toledo, and joined the program and the team to compete in their sport, not to suffer and endure what it appears this coach put them through. They’ve lost an opportunity here as well: the opportunity to be on a fine running team without the alleged conduct described in the article.
Again, this is not legal advice. For legal advice, one should consult a lawyer to discuss their specific situation.
It seems that any athlete who was a team member when these actions took place could claim sexual discrimination or harassment and would have a pretty good case.
What about legal jeopardy for the university? There could be some, although this is complete conjecture on my part. I am using the advice of an employee of local university (not the University of Toledo) who is familiar with Title IX requirements. While we commonly think of Title IX as a law requiring equal opportunity for male and female athletes, it was never specifically written for sports and deals with much broader issues, including issues of sexual harassment.
A letter sent to all college campuses in 2011 from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights clarified that “requirements of Title IX cover sexual violence and to remind schools of their responsibilities to take immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence in accordance with the requirements of Title IX” and that “a number of acts fall into the category of sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion”. Some of what Deadspin described could be construed as sexual coercion.
Every educational institution receiving educational funds is required to have a Title IX coordinator, who is charged with enforcing the regulations and investigating any accusations of violations, including sexual harassment. Investigations are often carried out by deputies named by the coordinator.
First of all, once a complaint has been made it should be turned over to the Title IX coordinator and not be handled by the athletic department (or whatever other department or college the complaint was made about). Neither article indicated whether or not this was done, but it should have been. Neither athletics nor any other department or college should be investigating their own.
The Title IX expert to whom I spoke said this:
The school should have investigated once there was a complaint, which it looks like they did once there was an official complaint. But a school that “knows, or reasonably should know, about possible harassment must promptly investigate to determine what occurred and take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.”
The question is, should the school have been expected to know before the official complaint by the woman in the story?
That’s a question not easily answered.
All of this is assuming that no one had real knowledge of the alleged affair or affairs. But what if an employee of the university did in fact think something was going on and did not report it? All university employees are what are called “mandatory reporters” and are required by law to forward knowledge or suspicion of sexual harassment or sexual violence (much in the same way that K-12 school employees are required to report suspicion of child abuse). Interestingly enough, it would be the university that would be in legal jeopardy for their failure to report, not the individuals.
This sordid tale is worth nothing unless the track and field community can learn from it and prevent it from happening again. What can we learn?
For one, this is not an isolated incident. Penn State showed us that. But there are many others, some of which aren’t nearly as well-known. For example, last year seven members of the Mt. San Antonio College women’s track team sued the college and the athletics staff, alleging sexual harassment by a former assistant coach and describing behavior even more reprehensible than that attributed to Hadsell.
Of course athletic administrators should be careful about who they hire. That goes without saying. While you can’t ever be sure who is going to cause you this kind of trouble, you can minimize the chances of it happening. Hiring a female head coach for a women’s team is not absolutely necessary, but “if a man is coaching women, there should be a female in the room with the same level of authority”, to quote a colleague. Deadspin’s story indicated that Hadsell was able to get away with this behavior for so long because he accumulated enough power of various kinds to intimidate those who might challenge him.
A less moral lesson of all of this is never to send secrets over an electronic network, because they don’t go away. You also don’t want to do it on your employer’s device, especially if that employer is the government.
The University of Toledo should have learned how to minimize scandal. The Blade’s Dave Hackenberg:
Why schools and other entities clam up and circle the wagons, like the University of Toledo did in the recent case involving track and field/cross country director Kevin Hadsell, instead of simply coming clean always amazes me.
Hadsell had inappropriate relationships with female athletes. There. What’s so difficult about that? Instead, UT initially would say only that he violated school policy while insisting there were no NCAA violations, which may be true, and that it did not involve or reflect on the running program, which is untrue.
What UT’s typical approach…invited was investigations by newspapers and Internet sites and, boy, did it get one of each…
Hadsell’s behavior merited his being fired and had he not resigned that apparently would have been the outcome. It was a shameful end for a coach who built a tremendously successful program.
And it was another head-scratching example of the news being far more damaging to all involved — yes, even some athletes — than had the university been up-front from the start.
The University of Toledo is no stranger to problems in its athletic department, with point-shaving scandals in both its football and men’s basketball programs in recent years, ones that led to criminal charges and convictions.
The Blade itself can learn from the episode. They basically got scooped on the story by Deadspin, which has led to a nasty back-and-forth on Twitter between the Deadspin writers and Blade editors. Note that Deadspin also broke the Manti Te’o story and exposed plagiarism at ESPN.com, so it’s not like this is their first trip around the block. Local media is often too enmeshed in local sports and dependent on access to be as skeptical and questioning as they should be.
I believe the #1 lesson to be this: parents and coaches should be very careful about to whom we send our young men and women. Gaudy winning records can easily dazzle but they are ultimately not the most important thing. I ran on a college team which was average at best but led by an unusually honest, organized and forthright man who gave nearly as much time to scrubs like me as he did to our All-American. I made lifelong friends in an atmosphere of trust. I wouldn’t even think of trading that experience for a championship ring.