Allegations that University of California women’s swimming head coach Teri McKeever bullied dozens of swimmers over a decades-long period are clouded by gender bias in the standards female coaches are held to, according to her attorney.
What nearly 60 people have described as verbal, emotional and physical abuse by McKeever, the 2012 U.S. Olympic team head coach, is actually accepted coaching methods approved of by the university that have been mischaracterized by female athletes socialized to react to coaching and stress differently than male athletes, Thomas Newkirk, McKeever’s attorney, maintained in an interview with the Southern California News Group and documents sent to Cal administrators.
Cal placed McKeever, who has guided the Golden Bears to four NCAA team titles, on paid administrative leave on May 25 and commissioned an investigation by a Los Angeles law firm into allegations raised in an SCNG report that the coach has routinely bullied athletes throughout her 29-year career at Berkeley.
To date 36 current or former Cal swimmers and divers, 17 parents, a former member of the Golden Bears’ men’s swimming and diving squad, two former coaches and two former Cal athletic department employees have told SCNG that McKeever 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.
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.
But Newkirk portrayed McKeever, 60, as the victim of both a double standard in how female and male coaches are viewed and judged, and a double standard in how female athletes are socialized from a young age to report stress, injuries and frustration differently than male athletes.
Newkirk in a nearly hour-long interview and in documents sent to Cal chancellor Carol T. Christ and athletics director Jim Knowlton said top university officials were not only aware of McKeever’s coaching methods but have rewarded her.
Cal gave McKeever a two-year contract extension in January 2020. The contract expires on April 30, 2024. The contract has an annual base salary of $242,000 and includes an additional $55,000 in potential bonuses.
The “Administration has been aware of Teri’s approach for years and recently awarded her a new contract,” Newkirk wrote in a recent document sent to Christ and Knowlton. “This award was based on hundreds and thousands of interactions with students, parents, and peers over many years. Coach McKeever does not coach in secret. There are several hundred witnesses to her methods and her behavior that will verify what she said, how she said it, and whether any of that was over the line of coaching standards. The administration is also aware and approves of Teri mentoring other coaches regarding their approach to leadership. Why would it permit that if there was the slightest concern about some pattern of behavior?”
Cal, citing the ongoing investigation, declined to comment on Newkirk’s statements.
“The campus is required by law to refrain from commenting upon personnel matters. As a result, we are precluded from responding to these claims and allegations,” the university said in a statement. “UC Berkeley, along with all of its constituent programs and departments, is committed to supporting, protecting and advancing gender equity, and to providing students with what they need to thrive in every aspect of their lives on campus.
“Without commenting on any specific allegations made with regard to any coach, the current leadership of Cal Athletics does not tolerate any employee actions or behaviors that violate policy. The fact that we cannot comment on past or present personnel matters does not mean that allegations are ignored.
“When the current leadership of Cal Athletics is made aware of allegations that policies have been violated, they respond as a department, when appropriate, or refer the matter to other campus offices, when warranted.”
Current and former Cal swimmers counter that Newkirk’s statements are part of a desperate effort to save the job of an abusive coach on the brink of being fired by a university where she’s coached 26 Olympians who have combined for 36 Olympic medals.
“My shortcut to everyone, to you, the readers, to the athletes who have complained themselves, and to their parents, the people really believe that Teri is abusive is that they do believe it,” Newkirk, an Iowa-based attorney who specializes in gender bias in college athletics. “I’m not accusing anyone of lying. I mean I’m sure that there are people who lie and exaggerate but what happens because no one is actually challenging these athletes to actually talk about the actions of Teri McKeever in a very specific fact driven way. What did she say exactly? What did she do exactly? What was the context of what she said or did exactly? Did you hear that or did you just report what other people told you. No one’s doing that. You’re not doing that. The university is not doing that, normally.
“So we don’t really challenge the manner in which bias can affect how these athletes react to Teri McKeever and how we’re judging Teri McKeever and other female coaches. So that’s what’s going on.”
Swimmers argue that Newkirk’s statements are hurtful and patronizing and ignore dozens of specific allegations against McKeever.
“This has nothing to do with gender bias,” said Danielle Carter, a former Golden Bears swimmer, who nearly committed suicide because of what she described as months of bullying by McKeever. “She uses and weaponizes what she knows about you and your illnesses against you.”
“I just feel like I’m being victimized all over again for speaking out,” said Chloe Clark, a former Cal swimmer who transferred because of McKeever’s alleged bullying which included accusing her of lying about having Crohn’s Disease. “He’s calling us out for ‘not being able to handle it.’
“I’m appalled by his statements. There are a lot of people with a lot of examples (of bullying) and (McKeever) hasn’t been held accountable for a long time.”
Swimmers, parents, and former Cal coaches have detailed to SCNG more than 100 specific incidents of alleged physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and violations of federal and state student privacy laws. A series of SCNG reports over the past month have included more than 60 specific incidents of alleged bullying, physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, and violations of federal and state student privacy laws, and pressuring athletes to compete or train while injured, ill or struggling with eating disorders.
“It happens all the time where the female coach is described as saying something negative but she never said the words,” Newkirk said. “But because she’s a female she’s supposed to respond in a nurturing way. She’s supposed to be more attentive to the athletes, more caring of the feelings of the athletes. And when Teri McKeever and other females do not respond in that expected way the athletes assume that she’s being critical of them in a very specific way. ‘She called me stupid.’ ‘She said I was dumb’. ‘She told me I was an idiot.’ The coach never actually says that stuff. The athlete is superimposing their feelings from what the coach actually said.”
Newkirk was asked specifically about allegations that McKeever routinely swore at swimmers in personal terms.
“I have seen this hundreds of times where an athlete will go up and she expects the coach to show sympathy. The coach doesn’t show sympathy,” Newkirk said. “She goes back to her friends and said well she basically called me a piece of (expletive). And then all of a sudden it becomes true and the coach never said that.”
Newkirk said that professional coaches understand they can use foul language, but that they shouldn’t use it directly at athletes.
“You shouldn’t say you are a piece of (expletive) human being. You shouldn’t say those things. Most coaches understand that other than again the fact that all coaches can lose their mind or temper on a day out 10 years or 30 years and I’m sure Teri can too. But other than contextually that people make mistakes and do something where they know it’s a mistake and they just wish they could take the words back, I would say coaches don’t do this. I would be shocked if Teri is doing that on a regular basis.”
Two dozen current and former Cal swimmers and divers have told SCNG that McKeever called them a “piece of (expletive)” on a regular basis. These accounts have been verified by other swimmers, parents and former Cal coaches.
“Teri swore at me at least three times a week,” said Anna Kalandadze, a former Cal swimmer. “I had a ‘(expletive) attitude.’ I was a ‘piece of (expletive).’”
“She did call me a ‘piece of (expletive),’” said Carter, referring to McKeever. “She said ‘I’m not dealing with your (expletive).’ ‘I’m not dealing with this piece of (expletive) for three more years.’ She said that in front of my parents.
“Those are specific incidents.”
Carter’s parents confirmed the incident.
Another specific allegation is McKeever’s reaction to Carter’s near suicide attempt in the fall of 2019 when the swimmer walked into her dorm bathroom planning to slit her wrist.
“It got to the point where I literally couldn’t take it anymore from Teri,” Carter said. “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be alive anymore. That night I literally didn’t want to be alive. It was like, OK, I’m ready to die. I want to kill myself. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to be alive.”
Carter had second thoughts at the last moment and texted a teammate.
Cal swimmers told McKeever about the incident and the coach confronted Carter the next morning at practice, pulling her out of the pool and then yelling and berating her.
“Did you try and kill yourself last night?” McKeever asked her, Carter said. Three other people confirm that Carter shared details of the conversation with them.
“Yeah,” Carter responded. “I don’t want to live.
“Teri literally laughed in my face and said, ‘Do you know how pathetic that is? How stupid that is? How selfish that is?’”
“That’s what she said to me,” Carter recalled in an interview this week. “That’s exactly what she said. And she was laughing in my face. She laughed and I felt this wave of humiliation. She didn’t have to say anything but she laughed in my face.”
Newkirk challenged the assertion that McKeever’s response was inappropriate.
“Let’s say that’s true because I don’t know,” Newkirk said. “Let’s say that’s true. Let’s say that Teri McKeever on this one day said it’s stupid and selfish. Why are we assuming that was an inappropriate thing to say. Are we psychologists? Do we understand how we’re supposed to respond to people who may think about or may consider committing suicide. How are we responding to this thing? And let’s say she did say it. Let’s say it’s the one day that she was just having a bad damn day and she said this is selfish, it is selfish and it’s stupid for you to do that. And she was engaging in pop psychology we shouldn’t have done. Is that comment justified for labeling this Hall of Fame coach as an abuser and a bully?”
The university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination as part of a formal investigation launched in May into allegations that McKeever recently used a racial epithet and profanities in disparaging rap music. The investigation into the incident initially focused on potential racial discrimination but has since been expanded to also consider possible discrimination based on sexual orientation and national origin, according to five swimmers, two parents and confidential university documents obtained by SCNG.
“If she said the word in that context she’s not directing at African Americans,” Newkirk said. “How in the world is that inappropriate? Is it just inappropriate because it’s politically incorrect? Because you’re not ever supposed to ever say the word even if it’s being used in a different context? Professors can’t say the word? Lawyers can’t say the word even though I’m defending a client who is African American?
“What you have here is the politically correct claim that you’re not supposed to use that word in any context with the labeling of mocking when that’s not what she’s doing. So in other words we’re assuming she’s mocking. We’re defining her, labeling her as mocking and then we’re also ignoring the fact that she’s been there for 30 years. Is there some pattern, does she have some pattern that rap music will never be played or listened to? No. … Does she have any behavior that suggests Black athletes or engages in behavior against African Americans that is significantly different than white Americans? No.”
But OHPD investigators have also been told that McKeever targeted two African American swimmers during the 2021-22 season for regular bullying, according to five people familiar with the investigation.
“There are allegations by some African Americans who claim that they are bullied because they experienced something negative in their interaction with Teri that in fact must be motivated by their race but again they have the same allegations as the white athletes,” Newkirk said.
“They’re all driven by the biased interpretation of Teri’s engagement with them. They’re labeling it as being based on their race but there’s no evidence to actually suggest that she uses language or behavior that would be specifically negatively directed at African Americans compared to whites over a period of time to justify labeling her as being biased toward Blacks.”
Newkirk has made similar arguments to Cal officials and said they’ve “heard us.”
“So the first problem here is that in college athletics the entire system accepts that there’s a gender difference in how men and women complain about the same thing and there is actually not any standards about whether or not men and women are being subjected to something that is inappropriate,” Newkirk said. “We’re only responding to the emotional claims of the athletes who happen to be female or we’re not responding to the claims of men that are not being brought forward at all because they’re socialized to remain silent even if they happen to be harmed.
“That’s just one piece. The fact athletes come forward differently and the fact that we hear those complaints differently. And we all know this is true. We all have these responses, so this is why when you do a story on a bunch of young women who allege some emotional harm or they’ve been hurt or they’ve even thought about suicide, we’re all responding in this patronizing, emotional way. Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it must be terrible. What’s going on here?’ Would we respond the same way if a group of men brought forward these type of complaints about any coach other than a female? I don’t think we would.
“The second component of this is gender bias. We evaluate females who are in coaching positions, leadership roles differently, less favorably, we evaluate them more harshly, harsher than we do males. Full stop. The scientific evidence that that happens across the United States in leadership roles and coaching roles is overwhelming. It is like denying the Holocaust. If we do not accept that this happens and that there’s biases and other forms of biases that cause us to evaluate women differently, then we are being irresponsible as human beings. It absolutely occurs.
“So what you have is Teri McKeever engaging in normal coaching behavior and so these athletes, not every athlete, but some athletes are having a negative response to it. And what they’re doing is, how this works is that an athlete who may be very strong, may have good days and bad days, it doesn’t matter, will always have some kind of negative feeling of depression, doubt, insecurities, stress from home, stress from school and of course the stress from being a Division 1 athlete at a premier program, which is a massive amount of stress. So they have these stressors, they have these fears, they have these insecurities, they have these fears and worries that males do too in a different way, but what they do is they will be seeking to place blame for those feelings on something other than themselves. And what they’ll do, because their coach is a female, is they’re more likely to place blame on her for the cause of those feelings even if the female is not doing anything that is outside the lines or would justify those feelings. It’s not that female coaches never cross the line.
“Teri McKeever might have said something one day. She might have had a rough day like any female or male coach. She might have said something out of school. Maybe she did. But the point is we pick up on any mistake of the female. That she said something a little rough. She said something out of school or she had a rough day. Or she was just tired herself. And we then assume that moment of bad behavior or poor behavior in a day was the entire cause of all the athlete’s problems that they allege. That’s how gender affects the process on both ends.”