TUCSON (CN) – A University of Arizona cross-country runner was assaulted by a coach and repeatedly bullied by coaches and teammates for a year, but was told that he simply needed to learn to “fit in,” according to a federal lawsuit filed against the university Monday.
Michael Grabowski, an All-American 2017 recruit from Smithtown, New York, eventually was dropped from the team with little explanation according to the lawsuit, which also names as defendants UA Director of Cross-County/Track and Field Fredrick Harvey, assistant cross-country coaches James Li and Hannah Peterson, four other staff members, and teammates Carlos Villareal and Hunter Davila.
Grabowski’s first hint at trouble was when his roommate, teammate Vincent Huynh-Watkins, left halfway through the 2017-18 year because of depression, the lawsuit says. Then three of the four recruits Grabowski started his first year with left before the end of 2018, and Grabowski was warned of bullying on the team, according to the 18-page lawsuit.
“Henry Weisberg, another freshman recruit of the same year, told plaintiff that he had been falsely accused of racism by defendant Coach Harvey,” the complaint states.
Weisberg left the team and returned home to Nevada, where he enrolled in another university, according to the complaint.
Grabowski says his own bullying began at an August 2017 preseason training camp, where he was the only team member without a bed and Davila and Lopez told him daily that he should have gone somewhere other than Arizona for college.
Meanwhile, Li told Grabowski’s father in a telephone call that the young man, who was not yet 18, just didn’t “know the culture yet” and promised to look into it. In October 2017, Davila posted a “harassing, homophobic, obscene” video about Grabowski on the team’s public group chat, according to the complaint.
In succeeding months, Grabowski says he reported almost daily bullying from Davila, Lopez and Harvey to team psychologist Amy Athey, who refused to characterize Grabowski’s treatment as bullying in a conversation with his mother.
“Every time plaintiff Grabowski mentioned the ‘bullying’ to either one of the coaches, they rephrased it as Plaintiff’s need to adjust and they did nothing to address or report the bullying,” he says in the complaint, which alleges discrimination and retaliation, assault, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Grabowski says the poor treatment continued through the year, and that he repeatedly told coaches and director Athey about it, until on the evening of Sept. 12, 2018, Harvey called Grabowski into his office.
“There’s a certain atmosphere we are trying to establish on this team, and you do not fit in it,” he said, according to the lawsuit, dropping Grabowski from the team on the spot with no further explanation.
Here’s what Grabowski says happened when he brought up the bullying:
“When plaintiff brought up the bullying, defendant Harvey leapt out of his chair, ran up to within a few inches of plaintiff’s face, slammed his hands down hard on plaintiff’s arms, pressing them painfully into the metal arms of the chair as he leaned in with spit hitting plaintiff’s face and called plaintiff a ‘fucking racist,’ a ‘white racist,’ a ‘fucking white racist,’ a ‘fucking liar,’ and more.”
Grabowski says he got a spontaneous nosebleed and fainted, and went to a hospital to be checked. He says he learned later that Harvey had accused him of sexually harassing a woman who later left the university, and that had filed a Title IX complaint against him. No such report has come to light, the complaint states.
Harvey and Li then filed their own Title IX complaint, claiming they overheard Grabowski joking about raping teammates, an allegation he denies, saying he merely “softly spelled ‘R-A-P-E’ in response to a teammate while having a conversation about the importance of a woman’s right to say no to sex.”
“I have always been a strong women’s rights advocate, and any comment I made was in support of a woman’s right to say no regardless of the circumstance,” Grabowski says in the complaint. He adds: “The Dean of Students has repeatedly told me that no complaint was ever filed against me, there are no substantiated complaints of any type against me and I have never been found to have violated Title IX.”
Turnover on the cross-country team — 88% of 16 recruits from 2016 and 2017 are gone —indicates major problems, the lawsuit states.
“The running program at the University of Arizona is racist, sexist, and designed such that the program is not susceptible to favoring or helping the students who enter,” Grabowski says. “Rather, the coaching staff, and ancillary persons at the University of Arizona are designed to protect the coaches and favor certain runners over others.”
The university has been aware of Grabowski’s allegations since the fall of 2018 and launched several inquiries, including an Athletic Department personnel review. The university found “a distinct disparity” between the claims the runner made last fall and those in his lawsuit, department spokesman Chris Sigurdson said in an email.
“The personnel review concluded that the coaches and staff acted appropriately,” Sigurdson said.
Athletic Department staff sent Grabowski to a hospital after the meeting, and that decision was deemed “best practice” by a senior medical professional, Sigurdson said.
“This is a very unfortunate situation for all concerned. We intend to strongly contest any lawsuits based on unsubstantiated allegations,” Sigurdson said.
Grabowski seeks punitive damages. He is represented by William Walker, of Tucson.