SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Three former students claim in a federal class action Wednesday that the National Collegiate Athletic Association has categorically failed to prevent sexual harassment and abuse by coaches and should be forced to enact policies that protect student-athletes.
The 106-page lawsuit contains disturbing allegations about a former track and field coach who started grooming female students in high school to trust him and keep their interactions secret. After getting the young women scholarships, coach John Rembao allegedly used his position to verbally berate them, undermine their self-esteem, get them alone, touch them inappropriately and, for at least one alleged victim, perform oral sex on her.
Though much of the complaint focuses on the alleged trauma inflicted on three student-athletes by Rembao, the lawsuit also blames the NCAA for refusing to put in place enforceable rules to stop coaches and other athletics employees from abusing their positions and exploiting young athletes.
“Without NCAA rules requiring member institutions to report predators like Rembao to the NCAA, Rembao moved among NCAA schools, preying on female track and field student-athletes. Rembao’s unfettered sexual and emotional abuse physically and emotionally damaged multiple student-athletes, including plaintiffs,” the complaint states.
Lead plaintiff Erin Aldrich first met Rembao at a summer training camp when she was in high school in the mid-1990s. Rembao started frequently calling her on the phone and saying inappropriate things, including saying that her leg muscle looked “super sexy” in her senior picture, according to the complaint.
Aldrich got a scholarship to play volleyball at the University of Arizona, where she also trained for the high jump with Rembao, an assistant track and field coach. Rembao accompanied Aldrich on a plane ride to compete for a spot on Team USA at the World Junior Championships in Sydney, Australia, in 1996. During that plane ride, Rembao allegedly fondled Aldrich under a blanket.
“Coach Rembao penetrated Ms. Aldrich with his fingers and joked with her that they were now members of the ‘mile high club,’” the complaint states. “He also told her he was going to divorce his wife and move with Ms. Aldrich to Australia.”
Rembao started giving Aldrich massages at his home. He would also “perform oral sex” on her at his office, in his house, in the car and on road trips for competitions and matches, according to the lawsuit.
In 1996, Rembao was allegedly inside Aldrich’s dorm room when her roommate unexpectedly arrived. Rembao reportedly hopped up and hid in her roommate’s closet, where he was discovered by the roommate. After Aldrich’s roommate reported the incident to the University of Arizona, Rembao transferred to the University of Texas at Austin. Aldrich followed in her sophomore year.
After the move to Texas, Rembao allegedly started retaliating against Aldrich because she stopped responding to his advances. He would harshly criticize her for missing jumps or not adhering to his low-calorie diet demands, the lawsuit states.
As with other students he coached, Rembao strongly emphasized calorie counting and often scolded Aldrich, “making her feel that he knew where every fat cell was on her body; he would tell her she could always be leaner,” according to the complaint.
A similar pattern is alleged to have occurred with two other plaintiffs – Jessica Johnson and Londa Bevins – whom Rembao coached at the University of Texas.
Rembao met Johnson at an Olympic training center in San Diego in 1996 when she was 15 years old and started exchanging emails and letters with her that became “more and more personal,” according to the suit.
In a December 1997 email cited in the complaint, Rembao told Johnson, “When I tell you things, I expect them to stay between me and you, or I just won’t tell you things anymore. Trust is important to me. Loyalty too.”
In that same email, Rembao wished Johnson good luck on her English and Spanish exams, calling her a “multilingual, long-legged, Miss America-looking, sincere, young, gorgeous looking young lady (I guess that was covered under Miss America looking), high jump/heptathlete STUD-ette!”
After Johnson enrolled in the University of Texas with a volleyball scholarship, Rembao had her over for dinner with his wife. After she complained about sore legs, Rembao took her in the living room to give her a massage. Rembao’s wife, a former student-athlete whom Rembao also used to coach, disappeared after dinner, according to the suit.
Rembao then had Johnson lay down, pushed her running shorts up and “massaged her inner thighs and buttocks, which made Ms. Johnson extremely uncomfortable,” the complaint says.
One time, he called her into his office, shut the door and licked her neck before commenting that she tasted “salty,” an incident that Johnson says horrified her. He later tried to grope her in a hotel room during a trip for an Oklahoma track meet, according to the suit.
After these disturbing incidents, Johnson spoke with her fellow track and field teammate and co-plaintiff Bevins and learned that Rembao had abused both young women along with other members of the team. Johnson and Bevins decided to quit the team and transfer to the University of Arkansas, where they received 50% scholarships, losing their full ride at the University of Texas.
Johnson submitted a formal complaint to the University of Texas-Austin. Although Rembao acknowledged many of the things Johnson complained of, the university found his conduct did not constitute sexual misconduct, according to the lawsuit.
All three women say the abuse inflicted by Rembao caused permanent psychological trauma that has negatively affected their lives and relationships.
After leaving the University of Texas in 2001, Rembao worked for two other schools before getting a job as track and field director of operations and assistant coach at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2007. He left the school in 2011, according to UC Berkeley athletics spokesman Herb Benenson.
The lawsuit claims the NCAA’s refusal to enact stronger policies has enabled coaches and others in positions of authority to abuse and harass students in the same manner that Aldrich, Johnson and Bevin were targeted.
In 1992, the U.S. Olympic Committee established a code of ethics that prohibits sexual relationships between coaches and athletes, finding such relationships are often “exploitative.”
It was not until after college football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of abusing young football players in 2012 that the NCAA imposed penalties on Pennsylvania State University for covering up the former coach’s conduct.
That same year, the NCAA released a 40-page report recommending that colleges adopt policies to prevent inappropriate relationships between student-athletes and athletics department personnel. However, the NCAA did not require any colleges to adopt such policies or impose penalties on schools that refuse to do so.
The lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks a court order requiring NCAA to create bylaws barring romantic and sexual relationships between coaches and student-athletes, mandating colleges to report incidents of sexual harassment and abuse to the NCAA, and requiring sexual abuse and harassment training for athletics department employees.
The lawsuit also seeks class certification and compensatory damages for all student-athletes subjected to sexual harassment and abuse by athletics department employees at 1,098 colleges under the NCAA’s jurisdiction.
NCAA spokeswoman Emily James declined to comment on the lawsuit.