Former USF baseball coaches under fire for “alleged sexualized environment”

Team captain and former players speak on SF Chronicle article

For the second time since October, a USF athletics program comes under fire for an alleged culture of misconduct (photo from 2021 with no known relation to current incident). PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLIE COKER 

Editor’s note (April 4, 2022): In the original version of this article it was stated that “The monetary compensation for settlement has not yet been determined according to the plaintiff’s legal counsel.” This has since been corrected.

 The SF Chronicle published a report March 11 detailing the experiences of three former USF baseball players who are suing former head coach Nino Giarratano and former assistant coach Troy Nakamura for “persistent psychological abuse and repeated inappropriate sexual conduct,” according to the lawsuit. 

In an email from University President Paul Fitzgerald S.J. to the USF community, Nakamura was fired Jan. 13 after the University investigated complaints from players, and Giarratano was “officially reprimanded on Jan. 24.” Giarratano was fired March 13. 

The class-action lawsuit filed by the three players, identified as John Does 1, 2, and 3 in the article and lawsuit, also claims that USF was aware of these coaches’ behavior and that the National Collegiate Athletic Association failed to “implement any rules prohibiting sexual harassment.” Plaintiffs have not quantified their claim for monetary damages at this point in the lawsuit. 

The three former players detail Nakamura and Giarratano’s inappropriate behavior, which included an incident in which Nakamura “crawled onto the field naked, swinging his penis in plain view,” as part of an improvisational skit to loosen players up. 

This incident is separate from another pre-practice ritual the team would hold called “Cafe” exercise. In these exercises, Nakamura would ask players what kind of food they would bring to a meal for an occasion. According to the players, these exercises would usually lead to a sexualized conversation. The complaint further alleged that Nakamura “would refer to women’s body parts he wanted to eat, bodily fluids and secretions he wanted to drink, and other sexual innuendo.” 

Giarratano would sometimes participate in these conversations but ultimately “did nothing to stop it.” 

The Foghorn spoke with one of the lawyers representing the players. Lynn Ellenberger of the FeganScott law firm said that since filing its lawsuit, more former players have come forward “and they reported the same conduct that we’ve alleged in the complaint.” 

Ellenberger noted that these allegations go as far back as 2011. With more players coming out and providing information, she revealed that her team and their co-counsel, the Lieff Cabraser firm, plan to file an amended complaint to add more plaintiffs. “This is a long-standing problem,” Ellenberger said. “It didn’t just happen in the past two or three years. It’s been going on for decades.”

In addition to the sexualized environment that is allegedly fostered within the program, all three players accuse the coaches of some kind of “extreme psychological abuse” and “retaliation.” The coaches seemed to target players who did not fully accept their questionable methods. All three former players claimed to suffer from increased anxiety due to their coaches’ repeated berating of them.

John Doe 1 claimed to have been constantly belittled by his coaches as they tried to force him to “relinquish his scholarship.” 

In one instance, John Doe 1’s mother sent voicemails and emails to the USF’s athletic director, Joan McDermott, expressing concern for the program’s culture and the impact on her son. The complaint alleges that the Athletics Department did not take any measures, and that it was instead shared with both coaches who “escalated” their  abuse, which  “continued throughout the summer of 2021.” This ongoing treatment led to his decision to join the NCAA’s transfer portal.

McDermott denies this allegation. 

Dillon McNeil, a former USF baseball player who played on the team between 2018 and 2021, was not shocked when he first learned about the lawsuit and the firings of Nakamura and Giarratano. McNeil said he cannot deny the allegations and that because of the power dynamics between the players and coaches, some of the behaviors were “normalized.” However, he believes neither coach is a “monster.” 

“I never felt like [Nakamura] was really a sexual predator or anything like that,” McNeil said. “I never felt like he would violate me or any of my teammates, in sort of a physical direct way. But it was just the normalization of these actions that was so wrong.” 

While some former players are reaching out to Ellenberger and her colleagues, other former players are offering support for both coaches and the program. Grant Young, who played at USF from 2017 to 2021 said that although Nakamura “should not have done what he did that led to the lawsuit,” and that Giarratano “shouldn’t have allowed it to let it happen,” the lawsuit and the Chronicle’s report is not reflective of either coach. 

“I’m not saying I disagree that some of the actions taken weren’t justified or necessary. But a more thorough investigation should have taken place,” Young said. “One that considered the stories of more than three players. Their story is nothing but a biased fragment of what these two coaches and USF baseball is really like.” 

The Foghorn also reached out to current players on the team. An email from team captain senior Nick Yovetich said given the difficult situation, “As a team, I think our sole focus right now is to put all of our collective energy into each other and towards our play on the field.”

Giarratano served as head coach for USF baseball since 1999. Nakamura, a USF alum, became an assistant coach with the team in 1998 and was subsequently promoted to associate head coach in 2013. 

Fitzgerald made it clear in his announcement that the University’s decision to fire Giarratano came when USF learned “[Giarratano] allowed Nakamura to be on the university baseball field before a game on March 9, after Nakamura’s termination.” In speaking to other news outlets, the University President said the decision was not influenced by the filing of a class-action lawsuit against USF, but the players’ lawyers disagreed. 

Giarratano was told he was fired in the middle of USF’s game against Arizona State and left the dugout as the team looked on. The University has confirmed this information. “The coach misconduct at question required immediate response and the university is sorry for the negative impact on our players, whose conduct is not the reason for the coach’s termination,” Kellie Samson, USF spokesperson, said. “As with any student who needs it, the university has made additional support and resources available to players.” 

Giarratano’s wife, Brenda Giarratano, has worked for the University’s Center for Academic and Student Achievement (CASA) team since 2006 and still remains in that capacity. The Foghorn reached out to the Giarratano couple for a comment. 

In an email to the Foghorn, she said “Our lawyer has asked that we kindly decline your offer to speak with us.”

Meanwhile, the University said that neither the Athletics Department nor the school received similar complaints against the team and its coaches prior to its investigation in December 2021. The University acted on Dec. 14, 2021, when it “received information from the Title IX Office that coaches Nakamura and Giarratano may have engaged in inappropriate behavior,” according to Samson. 

Current men’s baseball players are primarily focusing on supporting each other as the team goes through its biggest scandal in program history. PHOTO COURTESY OF ELLIE COKER

The University clarified that both Giarratano and Nakamura were initially suspended with pay on Dec. 17. Nakamura was then fired and Giarratano was suspended without pay on Jan. 13 after the school concluded its internal investigation. 

Though USF was on winter break at the time, the University did not release a community-wide announcement about the baseball investigation, as it usually does via email or the myUSF website. USF released this information through the Dons Baseball website, under a news bulletin titled “Baseball Announces Coaching Staff Changes,” on Jan. 13.

When asked why the University did not disclose this information to the community via email, Samson said, “The investigation was in process and information was being gathered throughout December and January.” 

This latest controversy involving a USF athletics program comes on the heels of Sports Illustrated’s investigation into the “predatory culture” that existed within the men’s soccer program for decades. The University has since promised to implement changes within the department and provide more transparency to the campus community. 

Senior politics major Aaron Fontan said that this report is something that goes beyond just the athletics programs. “I felt disappointed because this is my University and I take pride in being part of USF,” he said. “Two events similar in theme occurring on our campus is not a coincidence, it’s a sickness within our institution.” 

Currently, the University is conducting another investigation into this matter. When asked how the University will move forward, Samson said, “The university will continue to engage with our community in conversation about expectations, consequences, and culture. We are undertaking an external program review of athletics which will include outside experts in athletics, culture, governance, and accountability.” 

Ellenberger argues that this problem goes well beyond any single school. “Changes need to be made within the NCAA from the top down, and we’re looking to do that,” she said. “Abusers like this cannot go on for years and years or even decades, they need to be stopped.” 

Miguel Arcayena is a senior politics major and the Foghorn’s news editor. He covers campus breaking news and administrative issues. He can be reached at marcayena@sffoghorn.com.

Zoe Binder, a junior English and environmental studies double major, is the Foghorn’s opinion editor. She can be reached at zebinder@dons.usfca.edu.

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