NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A former student-athlete has filed a lawsuit claiming that Vanderbilt University turned “a blind eye” while a former women’s basketball assistant coach “groomed” and sexually abused her.
The civil lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court on April 27 alleges that the former assistant coach spent years grooming and eventually sexually abusing the young woman after she began attending classes and working out with her teammates in July 2007.
According to the lawsuit, the woman had been recruited by several Division I women’s basketball programs and ultimately accepted a full-ride athletic scholarship to Vanderbilt University. At the time, the athletic program consisted of a head coach and three assistant coaches.
During her first three years of college, the student-athlete reportedly experienced several hardships, including numerous family illnesses and the death of her grandfather. She confided in the coach, who the lawsuit said then used those experiences to “groom” her.
After the woman enrolled as a graduate student in June 2011, her lawyers said the coach’s alleged grooming became “more overt and aggressive.” The coach reportedly began stalking the student and “sought out every opportunity” to spend time with her.
That included early morning workouts, post-workout breakfasts, morning coffees, dinners and more, according to the lawsuit. During their workouts, the woman’s lawyers said the coach would choose exercises that required a “spotter” and would make “suggestive noises and comments.”
The lawsuit claims Vanderbilt athletic staff were “fully aware of (the coach’s) conduct” and the amount of time she was spending with the student-athlete, but it “was not questioned.”
While the woman was still a graduate student, her lawyers said the coach and other female staff members invited her to use the coaches’ locker room. Soon after, the coach began following her into the locker room and asking the student to meet her there, the lawsuit said.
The coach would then pull at the student’s towel, watch her change clothes and open the shower door “to stare at her and comment on her physique,” the woman’s lawyers said. Her alleged sexual advances continued outside of the locker room.
According to the lawsuit, the coach would play the song “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” every time they were in a car together. Eventually the woman’s lawyers said the coach’s actions escalated into sexual assault.
The lawsuit said the coach sexually assaulted her “numerous times a day on a near-daily basis,” including during away games when she would reportedly ask the student-athlete to come into her hotel room late at night.
The woman’s lawyers claim the coach knew she was “terrified of anyone finding out what was happening” and used the student’s religious beliefs and information she shared with her to intimidate her and “convince (her) that the acts were consensual.”
There was reportedly a 20-year age difference between the coach and the student, who moved to another state to attend law school in August 2012. However, according to the lawsuit, the coach continued to “control” her via text messages, phone calls and visits in-person.
“(The woman) was intimidated by (the coach) and feared that if she did not continue to
speak with (the coach), (the coach) would reveal their ‘relationship’,” the lawsuit said.
The woman’s lawyers said the sexual assaults continued even after the coach left Vanderbilt in May 2013 to become a personal trainer. It wasn’t until Oct. 2022 that the woman reportedly confronted the coach about the alleged abuse during a Facetime call.
Her lawyers said she “was in denial for several years” and feared coming forward because of the power dynamic between them. In April 2022, the woman began going to therapy for “debilitating panic attacks” and began to understand her experience, the lawsuit said.
It was also around that time that an Oct. 2022 report on the King and Spalding independent investigation into the National Women’s Soccer League, led by former acting United States Attorney General Sally Q. Yates, was publicized.
The report detailed systemic emotional abuse and sexual misconduct within professional soccer, which the woman’s lawyers said further encouraged her to come forward.
Prior to filing the lawsuit, the woman reportedly came forward and privately notified Vanderbilt University on Dec. 5, 2022 that she had allegedly been “groomed, sexually harassed, isolated, intimidated and ultimately sexually assaulted” by a former assistant coach.
She also “request[ed] that Vanderbilt conduct an internal investigation to determine whether
there are other victims of (the coach’s) pattern and practice of sexual harassment and sexual
abuse,” the lawsuit said.
However, her lawyers claim the university’s response was “insufficient.” The woman is seeking injunctive and equitable relief requiring Vanderbilt to modify or implement policies and practices to protect student athletes from grooming and sexual abuse.
In addition, she is seeking a trial by jury on all her claims, and compensation for medical expenses incurred from the alleged sexual abuse, court costs and emotional damages.
Vanderbilt University declined to comment on specifics of the lawsuit. However, in a statement provided to News 2, the university said there are policies in place that address sexual misconduct and relationships between students and university employees.
The university further stated that several “prevention and support resources” are offered to students and university employees through the Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Support, Title IX Office and Student Affairs.
Those agencies also offer training for faculty and staff on reporting sexual misconduct, and “work closely with Athletics to ensure student athletes and Athletic department staff are aware of our policies and university resources for support and reporting incidents,” the statement said.
The Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Support was founded in 2014.
Read the university’s full statement below.
We take our responsibility to prevent and respond to sexual misconduct seriously. Our policies cover sexual relationships between students and between students and university employees.
Our efforts to prevent sexual misconduct begin before our students arrive on campus and continue thereafter. Through our policies and the combined efforts of our Project Safe Center for Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Support, Title IX Office and Student Affairs, students have access to an array of prevention and support resources and receive comprehensive training on their options for reporting misconduct. We also train faculty and staff on reporting incidents and supporting students in distress.
These areas also work together to track patterns, evaluate the scope of a problem, and develop appropriate campus-wide responses. They also work closely with Athletics to ensure student athletes and Athletic department staff are aware of our policies and university resources for support and reporting incidents of misconduct.
To encourage students to report sexual misconduct, we foster a culture of reporting and have several ways to do so, including confidentially and anonymously. We are committed to confronting and combating this societal problem, and to providing members of our community with the resources and support they need and deserve.
We will respond to the specifics of the complaint at the appropriate time through the legal process.
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News 2 has also reached out to the coach for comment.