Players challenge allegations of sexual harassment leveled against assistant coach

Sam Danley, Cierra Howe

Three former softball players went to university officials last May accusing Assistant Coach Greg Bachkora of sexual harassment. Now, current players are claiming they had multiple conversations with their former teammates about finding ways to get the coaching staff fired long before that complaint was ever filed.

In the wake of an explosive Kansas City Star report, current players are coming forward claiming first-hand knowledge of specific incidents mentioned in both the original Title IX complaint and the Star’s article.

Five current players told U-News their conversations about getting the coaches fired stemmed from their anger over the team’s losing streak last spring and their shared frustration over the amount of playing time they received, not from any of their coaches’ conduct.

“I had conversations with these girls where we said we would do anything to get those coaches fired,” one current player said. “I regret it and admit it was a mistake.”

The allegations quickly sparked a public back-and-forth between current and former team members over the Star’s report and the contents of the Title IX report.

Former players who spoke to the Star criticized the school for failing to properly discipline Bachkora after they filed their complaint.

Two days after the Star published its report, 25 current and former players penned an open letter to the UMKC community defending their assistant coach and refuting many of the sexual harassment claims. They say the Star’s original report was exaggerated and taken out of context.

After U-News published the letter Wednesday morning, the Star reported that the former players are standing by their accusations. In the article, the former players told the Star current members pressured them to recant their statements after UMKC announced Backhora is taking a temporary leave of absence.

Current players tell a different story, claiming two former players reached out to them first. When they expressed regret over the accusations and the article, one current player said she offered to let the women sign their open letter. U-News obtained screenshots of text messages between current and former players corroborating these claims.

Disciplinary action taken against players in March

Many of the current players who spoke to U-News alluded to an incident that occured last March, when six players were suspended for taking high school recruits to an off-campus party.

According to a summary of the disciplinary action emailed to the Star by UMKC officials, three of those players are the ones who complained about Bachkora’s behavior to the school and later to the Star.

Assistant Softball Coach Greg Bachkora (UMKC Athletics)

Not long after this incident, one of the three players informed Head Coach Meredith Neal she would be leaving UMKC. A few weeks later, Neal informed the other two players that the school would not be renewing their scholarship for “resistance to disciplinary actions” and “a lack of remorse.”

According to the document, the other three players “cooperated fully with the disciplinary actions and were reinstated.”

According to one current player who was on the team last spring, the women repeatedly expressed to her their desire to “get back at the coaches” after being dismissed.

While the team was away at a conference tournament last spring, she said the three former players told her they spoke to Carla Wilson, the school’s Athletic Director at the time.

“They said the coaches are going to come home to a ‘nasty surprise,’” the player said. “Then they went on to say they talked to Carla and were going to get them fired.”

The Star reported that by sharing this document, UMKC might have violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prevents schools from sharing certain information about students. The Star also reported that releasing this document could potentially constitute retribution against the former players for filing a complaint against Bachkora.

The former players told the Star they did not file the complaint because they were disciplined, and that they had formed a “friend pact” to complain to the school about Bachkora’s conduct before they were suspended.

The Star said these players and their parents think the school is trying to discredit them. One parent said the girls only felt the strength to complain after they knew they would not be returning.

UMKC officials said the school never wanted this to go public, “But once the newspaper had part of the story and sought comments and information from us, we thought it was in the best interest of all concerned for our response to address the situation in its broader context.”

UMKC officials also said they disagree that they violated FERPA by providing the Star with the document.

Players say accusations don’t add up

The allegations of sexual harassment consist of three separate claims.

The first is that Bachkora once joked about female genitalia.

According to the redacted Title IX report published by the Star alongside its original article, Bachkora admitted to making the joke to an opposing team’s coach during a game.

“Bachkora stated that the player was attempting to field a ground ball when it hit her in the vaginal area,” wrote former Title IX Coordinator Mikah Thompson in the report.

Standing near the opposing team’s coach, Bachkora said “something to the effect of ‘that’s one way to catch the ball.’”

Thompson informed Bachkora that players had overheard the joke and included it in the allegations of sexual harassment they brought against him.

Junior Faith Willis told U-News she was the one who was struck by the ball while on third base during a scrimmage match.

Current softball player Faith Willis (UMKC Athletics)

“The ball took one bounce and then hit me right in the vagina,” said Willis. “It hurt so bad, I fell to the ground. I was literally face on the ground, not moving, not saying anything, just lying there in the most pain I’ve ever been in in my life.”

She said Bachkora ran up to her to see if she was OK. Because she wasn’t saying anything, the coach thought she might have been seriously injured.

“He kept asking me, ‘Are you OK? Are you OK? Where did it hit you?’” said Willis. “Then I just blurted out, ‘It hit me in the vagina, Coach. It hit me right there in the vagina.’”

She said the whole team laughed, and that’s when Bachkora made the joke included in the allegations.

“I never felt I was harassed,” said Willis. “If anything, that was a moment when I knew the coach cared about me. It was not a sexual thing at all. The word ‘vagina’ itself is not a sexual thing.”

The second claim is that Bachkora would kiss players on the forehead and cheek.

In his meeting with Thompson, Bachkora admitted to doing so in a “fatherly, nonsexual manner.”

According to the Title IX report, Bachkora “recalled a specific incident where he kissed a player on her forehead. Bachkora stated that the player was leaving the university and that he kissed her forehead as he was saying goodbye to her.”

Thompson’s report does not mention any other instances of Bachkora kissing players.

‘There’s no way anyone could just barge in unannounced’

The third claim—that Bachkora consistently entered the locker room unannounced—has caused the biggest stir. The father of a former player told the Star players would often have to scramble to cover themselves when the coach entered the locker room.

Many current and former players argue this version of events is not accurate.

According to the Title IX report, Bachkora admitted to entering the locker room, though he and 25 current and former players—six of whom were on the team when the complaints were filed—said he has always followed established protocol by announcing himself before going in.

Bachkora said he entered the locker room to use a microwave and access equipment.

The Star reported that some players said Bachkora’s announcements only came after he had already entered the locker room.

The Star reported that, “Another player, new to the UMKC team last year, said an older player told her Bachkora’s visits were so frequent that he ‘has seen me naked more than my boyfriend has.’”

U-News spoke to the older player who made the original comment. According to her, this second-hand quote was taken out of context.

The player told U-News that the comment was made as a joke in reference to the head coach, not Bachkora. She said she made the joke because her boyfriend lives out of state and they do not see each other very often, not because Bachkora frequently saw her naked.

“This was a complete joke made to my female coach,” the player said. “The person who said that quote, me, has never spoken to the Star. It’s absurd.”

Players said it’s partial truths like this that prompted them to speak out.

The university said they did not encourage the softball players to write the open letter, and that UMKC policy is “not to interfere with the free speech rights of students or faculty.” Players told U-News the decision to publicly defend Bachkora was theirs alone.

Willis said the accusations don’t make sense because the entire coaching staff used the microwave in the locker room, including one other male coach.

“Why aren’t they complaining about that?” Willis asked.

While they all said they love their coach, that’s not the only reason they jumped to his defense.

They said their reason for going public is that many of the allegations simply don’t add up based on their knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the specific accusations made in the original complaints and the Star’s first article.

In their open letter to the campus community, current and former players said it is impossible to enter the locker room unannounced because of “the dimensions of the room.”

According to senior and fourth-year softball player Maegan Rollow, players can always hear when someone is approaching the locker room changing area.

“There’s no way anyone could just barge in unannounced. The keypad on the door is loud, so you can hear when someone is typing in the code,” said Rollow. “The boys’ soccer room is next to us, and they’re always blasting music, so when the door opens, you can hear the music in our locker room.”

Current softball player Maegan Rollow (UMKC Athletics)

Other players claim the locker room is more like a “clubhouse,” and that the changing area is not located near the entrance.

The Star reported that one player said Bachkora recently entered the locker room while a player was in the shower. The player told the Star, “my teammates had to yell at him to get out.”

Current players say this never happened.

“The comment made about the shower curtain is false,” they wrote in the open letter. The letter alludes to a photo (which was not attached in the file sent to U-News) that proves every shower in the locker room has a curtain. The players claim the showers are “rarely used.”

Last Wednesday, reporter Mará Rose Williams appeared on an episode of the Star’s “Deep Background” podcast to discuss the ongoing story. She said she thinks current and former players refuting her article might be a case of “ if it didn’t happen to me, it didn’t happen.”

Players defending their coach disagree with this assessment. The players acknowledged sexual harassment should be taken seriously, and they are sensitive to the dynamics of publicly refuting these allegations.

“I believe in women empowerment. I would never want to make people feel like they can’t come forward if something happened that made them uncomfortable,” said Willis. “But I was friends with these girls and because I know what I know, I wanted to come forth.”

If the accusations did not involve events she was present for and involved in, or if she had not discussed getting the coaches fired with the accusers before the complaint was filed, Willis said she would not have spoken out.

The players said their goal is not to attack the Star or the women who made the allegations against Bachkora.

“The former players got their opinions out,” said Rollow. “Now we want ours heard, too.”

Rollow also addressed the claim that current players pressured former players to recant their story after the school announced Bachkora is voluntarily taking a “short leave of absence.”

“We don’t care if they change their stories,” Rollow said. “They said what they said, but we want our story to be told just like theirs was.”

Putting the case to rest?

According to the Title IX report, Thompson did not conduct interviews with other players when handling the complaint because Bachkora admitted to all three accusations.

The report also states that the allegations “did not suggest a bigger problem on the team.”

Former Title IX Coordinator Mikah Thompson (UMKC)

Although Thompson did not initially conduct interviews with other team members, in December UMKC’s Director of Athletics Brandon Martin sat down with six returning players who were on the team when the allegations were made.

Players told U-News that at first, they were unsure why Martin asked to meet with them. At the meeting, they said he asked a number of questions about the softball coaching staff and whether any of them had ever felt uneasy or uncomfortable with any members of the softball or athletics programs.

Rollow said she felt this meeting was a “double-check” on the school’s behalf to ensure there were no lingering concerns about Bachkora’s conduct before the case was put to rest.

UMKC officials told U-News Bachkora was given a written warning that remains in his file, which constitutes a reprimand under the Collected Rules and Regulations of the University of Missouri. The university also said “personnel decisions are made based on multiple considerations,” and that there is no fixed number of written warnings an employee can have on file that would result in termination.

After his meeting with Thompson, Bachkora was instructed to send female graduate assistants into the locker room to obtain or drop off equipment, and was told the location of the employee microwave would be moved from the locker room.

The university also informed Bachkora that any new reports of inappropriate behavior would result in “immediate additional punitive action.”

He did not receive any further disciplinary action.

According to UMKC, the athletic department’s “comprehensive review” of the softball program is still ongoing. The duration of Bachkora’s leave of absence has not been determined.

Bachkora is not engaged in any coaching activities at this time, and players are prohibited from making any contact with him.

U-News received two other letters, one from the SGA and one from student athlete leaders,expressing support for the softball team.

sd6w8@mail.umkc.edu

chtx9@mail.umkc.edu

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