It was a day for Cal swimmer Leann Toomey thought she would never see.
“Not in a million years,” Toomey said.
Toomey, a former All-America swimmer at Cal, is one of more than 40 women who alleged they were bullied by Teri McKeever, Cal’s groundbreaking women’s swimming head coach, over parts of four decades.
McKeever, the sport’s most successful coach who led the Golden Bears to four NCAA team titles, was fired Tuesday after an eight-month university-commissioned investigation concluded that McKeever discriminated against swimmers based on racial basis, national origin and disability, and abused athletes in violation of university policy, the Southern California News Group has learned.
“They heard us,” Toomey said.
McKeever’s firing followed an investigation in which attorneys hired by the university interviewed 147 people and reviewed 1700 documents.
The attorneys found “by a preponderance of the evidence that Coach McKeever discriminated against certain student-athletes, in certain instances, on the basis of race, national origin and disability,” according to the investigation’s heavily redacted nearly 500-page report. The attorneys also found “Coach McKeever toward some, but not all, student-athletes in some instances was abuse and violated University policy.”
Cal swimmers were informed of the decision Tuesday afternoon in a letter from Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton.
“I’m writing to inform you that today we have parted ways with long-time women’s swimming coach, Teri McKeever’” Knowlton wrote. “After carefully reviewing an extensive investigative report that was recently completed by an independent law firm, I strongly believe this is in the best interests of our student athletes, our swimming program, and Cal Athletics as a whole.
“The report details numerous violations of university policies that prohibit race, national origin, and disability discrimination. The report also details verbally abusive conduct that is antithetical to our most important values. I was disturbed by what I learned in the course of reading through the report’s 482 pages that substantiate far too many allegations of unacceptable behavior. I want to apologize, on behalf of Cal Athletics, to every student-athlete who was subject to this conduct in the past, and I want to thank everyone who had the courage to come forward and share their story with the investigators.”
The investigation was prompted by the publication of a Southern California News Group investigation May 24 that revealed that McKeever allegedly verbally and emotionally abused, swore at and threatened swimmers on an almost daily basis, pressured athletes to compete or train while injured or dealing with chronic illnesses or eating disorders, even accusing some women of lying about their conditions despite being provided medical records by them.
McKeever’s ouster also comes amid the widespread demand among current and former swimmers, their parents, alumni and others in the Cal community that the university also fire Knowlton and Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, McKeever’s close friend who as the executive senior associate athletic director had direct supervision over the Cal women’s swimming program for years. Critics allege that Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill ignored or failed to effectively address repeated credible allegations of bullying and harassment against McKeever.
To date 44 current or former Cal swimmers, including Olympic medalists and NCAA champions, 23 parents, a member of the school’s men’s team, three former Cal coaches, a former administrator and an athletic department employee have told SCNG that McKeever, the only woman to serve as head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team, routinely bullied swimmers, often in deeply personal terms, or used embarrassing or traumatic experiences from their past against them, used racial epithets, body-shamed and pressured athletes to compete or train while injured or dealing with chronic illnesses or eating disorders, even accusing some women of lying about their conditions despite being provided medical records by them. Swimmers and parents have also alleged that McKeever revealed medical information about athletes to other team members and coaches without their permission in violation of federal, state and university privacy laws and guidelines.
Nine Cal women’s swimmers, six since 2018, have told SCNG they made plans to kill themselves or obsessed about suicide for weeks or months because of what they describe as McKeever’s bullying.
“I didn’t want to exist in a world where I had to see Teri every day,” said former Cal distance swimming standout Chenoa Devine. “I didn’t want to be alive. I didn’t want to exist.”
Cal’s decision was met with mixed emotions from current and former Cal swimmers, several of whom said the university did not go far enough.
“I never thought this would happen,” said Toomey, who said McKeever’s alleged bullying continues to haunt her to the point that she attempted suicide in December 2018. “I want to see more than just Teri. This is a precedent setting case. This is the first step toward protecting other athletes in the future. This is the first step toward accountability.
“I’m elated she’s fired because that’s what she deserved. his is not just a slap on the hand or ‘oh, we’re really sorry, we’re going to talk to her and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“For years I had to suffer alone and to think maybe there was something wrong with me, maybe Teri was right, I just wasn’t tough enough. But now I know the abuse was real.”
McKeever was presented with the allegations against her on July 12, according to the report. She responded to the allegations on November 28 and accused the university of discrimination based on gender and being influenced by gender bias toward female coaches, the report said.
Thomas Newkirk, McKeever’s attorney, has charged that the allegations against McKeever are clouded by gender bias in the standards female coaches are held to.
“There was not one day in the last 30 years where I questioned what my job was,” McKeever said in a statement to SCNG. “I was charged with recruiting exceptionally talented young women and coaching them toward the goal of winningan NCAA National Championship. I loved my job, especially the challenge of taking an individualsport like swimming and making it about the team’s accomplishments. I invested my whole selfinto this mission of excellence in the pool, classroom and beyond. I am proud of being the onlyfemale in swimming history to lead women to not one, but four national championships and theonly woman ever selected to serve on, not one, but four USA Olympic Swimming Coaching staffs.”During a 30-year career there are always those who take issue with my coaching style and mepersonally. I am a woman holding what is traditionally a man’s job and double standards comewith the territory. I also know for those that struggled with my coaching, there were far morewho had their lives positively changed by their experience. I greatly value the bonds I made withhundreds of young women and look forward to continuing to witness their successes.”I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny anysuggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation.There were and should be consequences for violating team rules, not showing up for scheduledappointments, misusing resources, not giving an honest effort and behavior that was not congruentwith their individual or our team goals. But those consequences were not applied because of whosomeone was, only for what they did or didn’t do that hurt the team and the culture we wereworking hard to sustain.”
Cal placed McKeever, the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s team head coach, on paid administrative leave on May 25, a day after the initial SCNG report was published. The university also hired a Los Angeles-based law firm to conduct an investigation into the allegations.
“Due to a lack of available, internal investigators, UC Berkeley has engaged the Los Angeles-based law firm of Munger, Tolles, & Olson LLP to conduct a human resources investigation under the auspices of the campus’s People and Culture office,” Cal said in a statement at the time.
The university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination also opened last spring a formal investigation into allegations that McKeever used a racial epithet and profanities in disparaging rap music, according to five swimmers familiar with the conversation and an email to Cal detailing the incident.
The investigation report confirmed earlier SCNG reporting that three current swimmers told university officials that McKeever used a racial slur during a practice in April. The swimmers also said they felt discriminated against.
McKeever also complained that a current African American swimmer had too much “attitude,” according to five current swimmers.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport launched an investigation of McKeever following the SCNG reports. USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, was made aware of allegations of McKeever’s bullying in 2015 but named her to the 2019 World Championships coaching staff and that same year elected her as chair of the organization’s national team steering committee and its representative on USA Swimming’s board of directors.
The U.S. Center for SafeSport completed the initial phase of its investigation in October, according to six people familiar with the investigation. Center investigators interviewed approximately 60 current and former swimmers, parents and others familiar with the Cal program during the more than four-month long probe, according to people familiar with the investigation. A report on the probe’s findings is likely still months away.
Complaints about McKeever’s treatment of swimmers to the Cal administration and top athletic department officials date back to at least Jan. 13, 2010 when Golden Bears swimmer Jenna Rais in a letter to then-University of California chancellor Robert Joseph Birgeneau alleged she had been verbally abused and bullied by women’s team head coach Teri McKeever.
University administration and athletic department officials including Knowlton, Simon-O’Neill and Sandy Barbour, Cal’s athletic director from 2004 to 2014, have received more than 30 complaints from Cal swimmers or their parents alleging bullying behavior by McKeever over the 12 years following Rais’ letter. One of those complaints in 2018 prompted a university official to acknowledge she would review the school’s bullying, sexual violence and sexual harassment and non-discrimination policies with the coach, according to interviews, university documents and emails obtained by the Southern California News Group.
Despite the repeated complaints, Cal has paid McKeever, 60, just under $3 million in total compensation since 2010 and given her eight raises in her base pay between 2010 and 2019, according to her contract and other university financial records. McKeever’s annual base salary has increased by more than 77% since 2010.
The base salary raises and increased compensation for McKeever despite the steady stream of complaints, current and former swimmers and their parents said, show that Knowlton, Simon-O’Neill and other Cal administrators did not listen to them and that the university has prioritized athletic success over athlete well being.
She is the most well known and most successful female coach in the sport’s history. McKeever was the first and only woman head coach of the U.S. Olympic team, leading a squad that included six future, current or former Cal swimmers who earned a combined 13 medals at the London Games. In 29 seasons in Berkeley, she had coached 26 Olympians who have combined for 36 Olympic medals. She has also coached eight national college swimmers of the year and the Golden Bears have won 66 NCAA individual or relay titles.
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