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How Many Suicides Will It Take Before ‘Tough’ Coaches Are Never Allowed in Sports Again?

A staggering number of athletes have taken their own lives after being bullied by their high school or college coach. Why aren’t school administrators taking action before it’s too late?

When Brian Lilly Jr. arrived at the University of California, San Diego, in October 2019, he had high hopes that the school could nurture his talent and love for rowing, and even propel him to the national stage and ultimately the Olympics. 

Just over a year later, Lilly died by suicide on January 4, 2021, a few days after moving into a new apartment for the spring semester of his sophomore year. It caught his friends and family off guard: Here was a bright, gregarious young man, one who had battled through rheumatoid arthritis and weight issues as a child and evolved into a tough endurance athlete in his teen years. They couldn’t fathom what had triggered such a sudden change. 

But further digging into Lilly’s life showed signs that the spiral had been building since his first month on the rowing team, as he acclimated to life under the mentorship of coach Geoff Bond. There were already red flags around Bond’s previous departure from UPenn’s rowing team, which the Lilly family alleges was due to the athletes threatening to walk out of the program over Bond’s abusive and degrading treatment of them. But the Lillys’ lawsuit against Bond and the university, filed in September, paints a picture of how that behavior bloomed anew in San Diego and led to the failing mental health of a teenager. 

The lawsuit claims that Bond routinely questioned the “manliness” of his rowers, calling them “pussies,” and encouraging damaging acts like throwing up from exhaustion to prove their manhood. Crucially, the family alleges that Bond began focusing his ire on Lilly after the latter confronted his coach over another freshman rower who was allowed to stay on the team while there were sexual assault allegations made against him.

Lilly wanted accountability, and pressed Bond on whether he had initiated a Title IX investigation. Instead, his coach treated Lilly as if he was part of the problem; in one instance, Bond stood both Lilly and the accused assaulter in front of the team, and berated them to “get along” or get “kicked off the team,” the lawsuit claims. 

“Then he became persona non grata to Bond and then anyone who was under Bond’s control,” family attorney Nicholas Lewis told NBC San Diego. “He was given the cold shoulder, or if he got any attention, it was completely negative, insulting and debasing him; making him feel like he was not part of the team and not a real man or a real rower.” 

Lilly’s story is the latest chapter in a long history of male coaches who have pushed their athletes to the ragged edges of their mental health, causing trauma and potentially motivating suicide in their pursuit of peak performance. Like other established archetypes, there are familiar beats to the story of abusive coaches: How they draw young people in with the promise of guidance and success; the way they wield power and authority over others; how they bully perceived weak links and traitors to the team cause. There are numerous parallels to male domestic violence, and the shitty fathers who terrorize kids to prove their own agency while claiming it’s best for their victims to take it. 

The Lillys are firm that their son didn’t have mental health problems before his relationship with Bond, and they don’t see it as a matter of coaching style, either. “This horrific tragedy is not the sad, but inevitable, result of an ‘old-school coach’ miscalculating the effect of his harsh coaching style on an overly sensitive Generation Z teenager,” the lawsuit reads. Instead, his parents say the suicide came after multiple attempts to notify other coaches and the athletic department about Bond’s behavior with him and the team. All the while, they claim Lilly suffered insult after insult — everything from fat jokes to cutting comments about his performance, all of which alienated him further from teammates, who themselves wanted to avoid Bond’s ire. 

There is a tangible line between motivating young athletes and traumatizing them, and time and again, stories of athlete abuse make it clear that many coaches feel entitled to cross that line. 

Former Florida women’s basketball head coach Cam Newbauer is accused of being emotionally abusive with his teams, using racist remarks, screaming at players and throwing basketballs at them while angry. Multiple women on the team say that it wasn’t a case of occasional outbursts, but rather a campaign of harassment and terror — one that led to mental breakdowns, mass anxiety and young women feeling worthless. “He would make them cry,” graduate transfer Cydnee Kinslow said. “Push until they cried, whatever it was, like, he tried. There’s a breaking point for people and pushing them through a wall to make them stronger. And then there’s what Cameron Newbauer did.”

At Oregon State University, volleyball head coach Mark Barnard is accused of a similar reign of terror in his five years there, including pitting players against each other in group meetings, pushing them to the physical breaking point as a lesson, lying about scholarships and berating them. Since 2016, 11 players have quit or transfered from the team, and two members contemplated suicide, with one attempting an overdose, according to the Associated Press

“He’d call us entitled brats, a bunch of princesses, tell us how much we suck and how we’re unworthy of being here. He’d push players beyond the limits of what they physically and mentally could do,” one anonymous player told the AP in August. 

Elsewhere, Quentin Hillsman, head coach of Syracuse’s women’s basketball team, resigned in August after serious allegations that he threatened the athletes and bullied some of them into mental-health crises and suicidal thoughts. In January, a groundbreaking court case in South Korea found two male coaches guilty of verbal and physical abuse against a triathlete who died of suicide after enduring them (and asked for justice in a series of final text messages to her family). 

The perpetrators aren’t always just men, either: Purdue-Fort Wayne women’s basketball head coach Niecee Nelson is accused of serious physical and mental bullying, including demanding her team play through injury and going on insulting tirades that targeted specific women. One athletic trainer told IndyStar that the trauma pushed her to self-harm as a coping mechanism. 

But by and large, the position of head coach is disproportionately filled by a man today — and it’s why stories of bully coaches depict the worst tropes in masculinity, whether it’s irrational rage, physical violence or an egoistic savior mentality. 

As in other cases of abuse, observers are quick to wonder why the victim didn’t leave and cut the toxic person out of their lives. But abuse grows in conditions that trap a victim and make them feel unable to leave or seek support. The power imbalance is made all the more explicit in a sports team setting, where standing up to a coach can mean being ex-communicated from a mentor, friends and a career path, all in a single blow. The language of abuse is mirrored, too, with toxic coaches commonly claiming to have the victim’s best interests in mind while also gaslighting them into believing they’re to blame for various struggles. 

Even if they aren’t the ones leading the abuse, coaches who stand by as a player is bullied by other teammates can leave deep scars. In a 2014 case in Illinois, a young man died of suicide after being repeatedly targeted by his football teammates, who called him homophobic slurs and slammed his head into lockers. Things only got worse after he quit the football team, according to his father, who sued the school for not stepping in despite his son’s complaints. “At times, the football coach, Dennis Drust, even instigated the bullying against Jordan,” the complaint states. “The failure to act and limit abuse was knowing and intentional. Upon information and belief, the football coach, after being informed of acts of bullying, told Jordan that he needed to ‘toughen up.’”

Abuse from coaches exists on a spectrum, growing in intensity if and when it’s unchecked. If there’s any universal takeaway, it may be that men who coach sports need to care for their own mental health instead of levying their own baggage and insecurities at practice, looking for a target to unload upon. But that abuse hides under a veneer of respectability, in a culture where male rage has been normalized on the court and in the locker room. 

As Lilly family attorney Andrew Miltenberg told NBC San Diego: “You don’t have to just be Larry Nassar at Michigan State to damage people. You don’t have to be the football coaches at Penn State to damage people. It wasn’t that the university didn’t see the signs. They ignored the signs.”

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