Anticipated independent investigators’ report details prior incidents of sexual misconduct involving men’s soccer athletes; USF community demands accountability
After more than six months of anticipation, on Jan. 25, USF President Paul Fitzgerald and Chairman of the Board of Trustees John Nicolai announced that Hulst & Handler LLP— the independent investigating firm the University hired to probe allegations that its men’s soccer program had a history of sexual misconduct— determined that there was insufficient evidence to prove a pattern of predatory culture amongst the team.
Last summer, an Instagram account belonging to an alumnus emerged detailing allegations of a culture which tolerated sexual misconduct among members of the men’s soccer program. The account, belonging to Will Midence ‘19, first posted a meme which implied a “toxic” environment surrounding the men’s soccer team. Midence later created an account called, “It’s On USFCA” to advocate for sexual misconduct survivors; he also authored an online petition to put pressure on the University to take action against its men’s soccer program. The petition has garnered more than 5,000 electronic signatures since its creation in July 2020.
Midence’s meme spread rapidly across Instagram and led many current and former students to share their experiences involving men’s soccer team players. Among the stories shared online, one recounted an alleged sexual assault involving former USF soccer player Manny Padilla, who graduated in 2017.
According to the University, in 2015, Padilla was involved in a high-profile case of sexual misconduct for which he was later found guilty by the Title IX office. As a result, Padilla was placed on University probation. According to the investigators’ report, as part of Padilla’s “deferred suspension,” he was required to: attend a meeting with the co-director of the Cultural Centers at USF to “discuss issues related to masculinity, gender roles and responsibilities,” receive counseling sessions from Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and write a reflection paper about his misconduct. Padilla was also relocated to a new dorm on campus as a result of the incident.
The re-emergence of Padilla’s 2015 sexual misconduct case last summer led New Mexico United, the professional soccer team Padilla played for, to first, briefly suspend, and later release Padilla from his contract on July 25, 2020.
The sheer number of social media posts related to sexual assault and the men’s soccer team prompted University administration to send multiple emails to the USF community over the summer acknowledging these allegations.
In mid-July, the University announced that it had hired Hulst & Handler LLP, to independently investigate sexual misconduct complaints about men’s soccer team players, its culture, and any new allegations which had come to light since the start of Midence’s social media campaign. The investigators took nearly six months to complete their report, finishing it on Jan. 11.
Hulst & Handler LLP conducted 90 interviews throughout the investigation period. According to their 53-page report, the investigators focused on two main questions: First, was there a pervasive culture of sexual misconduct or disrespectful behavior towards women or the LGBTQIA community? Second, was the Title IX office, the Athletics Department, and/or the University administration aware of such misconduct and, if so, did they fail to address such behavior properly? The report concluded that there was no such culture of sexual misconduct and that campus offices did not knowingly ignore such behavior.
“We find it more likely than not that sexual misconduct and/or disrespectful behavior toward women and/or LGBTQIA individuals was not pervasive among members of the USF men’s soccer team over the past decade” the report stated. “Our investigation also concludes that a few players engaged in disrespectful talk about women and LGBTQIA individuals; however, such commentary does not appear pervasive among the team as a whole.”
The investigators found that, over the past decade, 11 players were involved in cases of sexual misconduct. Four of those 11 players were involved in the same incident.
“While we regard each allegation and experience of sexual misconduct as significant and concerning, we conclude that sexual misconduct involving this limited number of soccer players over the past decade does not represent pervasive sexual misconduct within the soccer program,” the report said.
The report acknowledged that community members may have expected more cases to be discovered and that its findings may not be consistent with what social media displayed over the summer. The report cited three reasons for this discrepancy: first, there were a large number of anonymous survivors and the investigators could not reach conclusions based on “unsubstantiated reports.” Second, social media comments and rumors referenced incidents or events that did not involve the men’s soccer team specifically. Third, some comments given to the investigators were “nonspecific warnings or general opinion not based in facts.”
Moreover, the investigators claimed that misinformation within the USF community led many to believe that soccer players were “rapists” who the University did not hold accountable. The report said the University’s obligation to protect the privacy and confidentiality of people involved in reported sexual misconduct cases “prevented the school from publicly communicating facts that could dispel this misinformation.”
Comments on social media during the summer also alleged that athletes received preferential treatment from the Title IX office, but the report stated that after looking at data of sexual misconduct cases involving both athletes and nonathletes, the sanctions imposed were consistent for both parties and that men’s soccer players, in some cases, received more severe sanctions than their non-athlete counterparts.
‘Lack of communication’ and ‘misperceptions’
Referencing the incident involving Padilla, the report stated, “In particular, this lack of communication within the Athletics Department about this now-high-profile 2015 Title IX outcome, although motivated by an effort to keep the matter confidential, contributed to the misperception that the player received no meaningful consequences and that soccer players are not held accountable for sexual misconduct.”
Other reasons investigators cited for this “misperception” were: inaccurate rumors about incidents, lack of awareness that a survivor may have chosen not to proceed with a Title IX investigation, the possibility that a female student may have consented to a sexual encounter perceived as assault, or a general lack of understanding of the University’s Title IX sanction process among the USF community.
“Rumors spread quickly in a university environment, even more so via social media,” the report stated. “However, the facts we uncovered during this investigation reveal that USF has acted diligently in response to reported allegations of sexual misconduct involving soccer players, and that USF did not have reason to believe sexual misconduct was pervasive within the men’s soccer team over the past decade.”
In addition to the 11 players accused of sexual assault throughout the past decade, the report also mentioned two other cases brought against soccer players which were not labled as sexual assaults. In 2016, a player was accused of “harassing via text,” and in 2020, another player was accused of “dating violence,” according to the report.
Furthermore, during the course of their investigation, the investigators were made aware of four other reports of alleged sexual assault between 2014 and 2019, but could neither uncover the names of the soccer players, nor those of the survivors involved, in order to further investigate these allegations.
One of the more prominent claims made on social media over the summer was that female students were commonly told to avoid parties at “the soccer house” because it is alleged that women were frequently drugged and sexually assaulted there.
The report found that “the soccer house was a party house, but insufficient facts exist to substantiate the rumor that it was a location for incidents of sexual assault.”
in a university-wide email. The email also stated, “We know that, with new leadership, change has taken place within the soccer team, and that many members of the community have been working together to ensure students, faculty, and staff are held accountable to community standards.” The leadership changes referenced in the email involved the hiring of a new men’s soccer head coach and coaching staff in 2019.
Kellie Samson, head of media relations for the University, told the Foghorn in an email that Vice President of Student Life Julie Orio and Athletic Director Joan McDermott would release a report on the next steps involving Title IX policies and procedures in mid-February as a result of Hulst & Handler LLP’s findings.
“The recent report regarding the soccer team sexual misconduct allegations was a necessary first step to begin the long process of rebuilding trust between students and the University,” members of the ASUSF Senate wrote in a statement to the Foghorn.
Additionally, in their statement, Senate expressed interest in establishing a student committee to advise the Title IX office on its programming efforts. Senate also said it has begun conversations with Fitzgerald, Orio, and McDermott regarding ways students can get involved in the next steps of this process, including hosting a student forum addressing the report.
In response to the report, Midence said, in an exclusive statement to the Foghorn, “I’m disappointed after reading the findings from the third party investigation… I received a couple of messages from people who were extremely frustrated because the information that they provided was not in the report. While this might be USFCA’s way of saying that they dealt with the situation this only goes to show that students’ safety is not of top concern.”
Midence’s concerns were echoed by fellow “It’s On USFCA” organizer Devi Jags, who criticized the report on Twitter. She wrote, in a statement to the Foghorn, “Hulst and Handler LLP is hired and paid by The University of San Francisco, therefore, in my strong opinion, [the investigators] cannot be ‘unbiased’ as stated.” In addition, Jags claimed that she is aware of survivors who were concerned that their testimonies— as they appeared in the report— were, “inaccurate, misrepresented or discarded.”
Jags also criticized the language used by Hulst & Handler LLP in their findings report. “As someone who studies and advocates for improvements of student rights under Title IX, the language in this investigation finding was as bad, if not worse than the pre ‘Dear Colleague Letter’ era,” Jags wrote. “But USFCA will not hide behind victim-blaming language, its students, or anything else. They will be held accountable.”
The Foghorn was unable to verify Midence and Jags’ claims that some survivors’ stories were altered or left out of Hulst & Handler LLP’s report.
Caroline Christ ‘10 is an advocate for survivors of sexual assault and was involved in sexual assault awareness activism during her time as a USF student. In a statement to the Foghron, Christ wrote: “The report claims that sexual violence is not a problem on campus, specifically within the soccer team, but that students’ perceptions and rumors cause [the student body] to view [sexual misconduct] as a problem. Students and alumni believe sexual violence is an epidemic at USF because of their own experience or the experience of someone they know.”
Senior politics major Angelina Polselli called the report’s findings “disheartening.” Polselli also echoed Christ’s evaluation of the report that it failed to acknowledge the validity of survivors’ experiences. “Throughout the report there seemed to be a notion that the level of outcry was due to rumors and not because there was an actual level of danger (which I still think there is),” she said.
Polselli added that she wished the report cast a wider net in its investigation of predatory culture on campus. “While the report only looks at the athletic department, they missed the many dangers that women within greek life and across campus face when it comes to frats,” she said.
In Christ’s opinion, the report was insufficient.
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Ethan Tan is a junior politics major and the Foghorn’s News Editor. He covers the University’s administration and campus labor unions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tanethans.