A University of California Berkeley investigation into allegations that Golden Bears head women’s swim coach Teri McKeever routinely bullied and verbally abused swimmers for decades could take up to six months, Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton told the team’s parents during a video call Tuesday night that often became heated.
While Knowlton acknowledged that some of McKeever’s alleged bullying took place on his watch, parents both during the meeting and in interviews on Wednesday expressed frustration and anger over what they characterized as Knowlton and Cal’s failed response to the allegations, the lack of a plan for current team members moving forward and the university’s commitment to investigating other coaches or officials who ignored reports or enabled McKeever’s misconduct.
Current and former Cal swimmers and their parents expressed surprise and in some cases outrage that Knowlton was on Tuesday’s video call with approximately 30 parents and ended with Knowlton yelling, “Go Bears!”
“The general take away from the meeting is the lack of urgency on something that should have been taken care of a long time ago,” the parent of a current Cal swimmer said.
McKeever was placed on paid administrative leave by the university last Wednesday.
Cal’s response, said a parent of a current Cal swimmer, “seems inconsistent with truly taking the steps that lead to getting to the truth, resolving this issue and moving on as quickly as possible.
“The pace and speed doesn’t bring a lot of confidence to the parent group that (Cal) is willing to do a true investigation and get to the truth.”
Another parent said the video call “seemed thrown together with no agenda. I really felt like it was put out there to gauge us.”
The external investigation by a Los Angeles-based law firm and commissioned by the university is in response to a Southern California News Group investigation that revealed that McKeever, the most famous and successful female swim coach in the sport’s history, allegedly bullied, verbally and emotionally abused, swore at and threatened dozens of swimmers on an almost daily basis for nearly a quarter-century.
Interviews with 34 current or former Cal swimmers, 16 parents, a former member of the Goldens Bears’ men’s swimming and diving squad, and two former Cal athletic department employees also detail how McKeever used racial epithets, 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.
The interviews, as well as emails, letters, university documents, recordings of conversations between McKeever and swimmers, and journal entries, reveal an environment where swimmers from Olympians, World Championships participants and All-Americans to non-scholarship athletes are consumed with avoiding McKeever’s alleged wrath. This preoccupation has led to panic attacks, anxiety, sleepless nights, depression, self-doubt, suicidal thoughts and planning, and in some cases self-harm.
A U.S. Center for SafeSport investigation into McKeever also launched last week following the SCNG report.
The university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination opened a formal investigation in May into allegations that McKeever recently used a racial epithet and profanities in disparaging rap music, according to six swimmers and three parents familiar with the conversation and an email to Cal detailing the incident. The investigation into the incident will initially focus on potential racial discrimination but could be expanded to also consider possible discrimination based on sexual orientation and national origin, according to confidential university documents obtained by SCNG.
McKeever has declined SCNG’s requests for comment.
“We have an institutional interest in finding out the truth,” said Dan Mogulof, Cal’s vice chancellor for public affairs. Launching such an investigation, Mogulof continued, is essential to the university ensuring “that the people who work for us are abiding by our policies and values.
“As a matter of law and policy we cannot comment on any particular Human Resources investigation. However, as a part of our typical investigative process, the campus proactively reaches out to individuals who may have information relevant to the investigation. The same would typically hold true for an external firm we engage to conduct an investigation we oversee,”
But five parents on the video call said Knowlton and other university officials appeared unorganized and seemed to not to grasp the gravity of the allegations against McKeever.
“They seem to be taking a passive approach to investigating, ‘if you have something to say feel free to contact us,’” the parent of a current Cal swimmer said. “That’s not investigating. When you’re investigating you’re proactive. You know who to talk to and you go talk to them.”
Multiple Cal swimmers and their parents said they have complained about McKeever to Knowlton and Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, the school’s executive senior associate athletics director, and senior woman administrator. Those complaints have either been ignored or met with indifference, swimmers and parents said, or in one case met with dismissiveness.
Four Cal seniors on the 2021-22 roster recently met with Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill and alleged bullying and verbal and emotional abuse by McKeever, according to three people familiar with the meeting. Knowlton told the swimmers that McKeever was just a hard, tough coach who they would appreciate in the coming decades, according to the three people.
A growing number of Cal swimmers and their parents and supporters have called for the firing of Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill, a longtime close personal friend of McKeever’s.
“Associate athletic director Gordon Bayne will for the foreseeable future assume the responsibility of the Cal women’s swimming program and he will directly report to Jim Knowlton,” Mogulof said.
Knowlton and Eugene Whitlock, Cal’s chief people & culture officer and associate vice chancellor for human resources, “misread the room” during the Zoom call, parents said.
The officials, a parent said, “didn’t address the culpability of the athletic department and not having addressed this issue when they could have.”
The officials referred to the probe of McKeever as a “traditional HR investigation,” according to four parents on the call.
The investigation will be “solely and exclusively” overseen by the university’s human resources office, which reports to a vice chancellor, Mogulof said.
“I just feel they didn’t confront the accusations and were trying to spin this as we just really need to find out what really happened,” a parent said. “They’re trying to paint it as, ‘Well, there’s always two sides of the story.’ No, there’s not two sides of the story. That didn’t sit well” with the parents.
The parents also expressed frustration that Cal officials have not addressed the concerns of the current team members, leaving the swimmers and their families in limbo and facing a number of questions: What if McKeever is reinstated, is the NCAA transfer portal still an option? Who will train them for events such as the U.S. Championships in Irvine (Aug. 2-6)?
Former Dartmouth head coach Jesse Moore, who was named as a Cal assistant in April, is the interim head coach. In addition to Bayne, an associate athletic director for administration, Josh Hummel, senior associate AD for facilities, events and capital projects, will also serve as the team’s administrators during the investigation, according to an email from the university to team members.
There has been a push by Cal swimmers and parents for the university to turn over both the women’s and men’s programs to Cal men’s head coach David Durden, the 2021 U.S. Olympic men’s team head coach. Olympic champions Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin both trained under Durden after leaving McKeever.
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