Longtime Harvard Women’s Ice Hockey Coach Facing Allegations of Abuse & Racial Discrimination

Feb 24, 2023

By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., Senior Writer, Professor, Sports Media, Roy H. Park School of Communications, staurows@ithaca.edu

On January 27, 2023, Boston Globe writer Bob Hohler reported that longtime Harvard women’s ice hockey coach Katey Stone was facing allegations of abusive behavior that rewarded some favored players and created a culture of fear among others.  Are these allegations merely petty and vengeful complaints as one former captain and assistant coach characterized them or do they represent a power dynamic created by a controlling coach that subjected players to abusive and discriminatory treatment? Were Coach Stone’s comments part of a pattern of racial discrimination against Native players and an assistant coach? (Hohler (2023).

Player Complaints Described in the Boston Globe

According to Hohler (2023), “Sixteen of Stone’s former players told the Globe they fault Harvard for keeping her [Coach Stone] despite numerous complaints about her alleged abusive coaching practices” (para. 9). In total, the interviews conducted by Hohler included accounts that fell into seven categories.  The coach was alleged to have

  • engaged in demoralizing and denigrating behavior that was the antithesis of positive motivation;
  • been insensitive to the mental health issues players faced, allegedly remarking to one player who sought professional help that the player was a burden to her team;
  • pressured players to return to play sooner than they should have while urging them to endure excessive pain and minimizing the severity of traumatic brain injuries;
  • body shamed players triggering eating disorders if they were either too thin or too heavy;
  • prioritized hockey over their academic careers, encouraging them to take easy courses; avoid taking academic commitments that conflicted with practices; and avoid pursuing more than one major; and,
  • treated players differently in terms of team discipline, with favored players receiving little if any punishment for misconduct such as drinking while other players received harsher punishments.

There were also allegations that hazing on the women’s ice hockey team involving forced drinking and role playing that had sexual overtones existed as far back as 2000 continuing through at least 2016.  Although Coach Stone was not directly implicated in those reports as having known about the hazing, one player indicated that they had reported the hazing to Harvard through a signed survey and was never contacted by university officials about the report. 

Specific Allegations Regarding Racial Discrimination

Despite the team emerging as Ivy League and Eastern Conference Athletic Conference (ECAC) regular season champions in 2021-2022, the postseason was marred according to some players by an episode that occurred when a practice session was abruptly stopped by Coach Stone, followed by a confrontation in the locker room.  Addressing a team that included three First Nations women (two players and a former captain turned assistant coach), Coach Stone is alleged to have called out the players for not respecting her, accusing them of being a “collection of skaters ‘with too many chiefs and not enough Indians’” (Hohler, 2023, para. 4). 

One of the players, Maryna G. Macdonald, from the Ditidaht First Nation of Canada’s Vancouver Island, reported the incident to Harvard Athletics, prompting an initial response from athletic director Erin McDermott on April 8, 2022 indicating that a review would be done.  Explaining that the athletic department would use the complaint as an opportunity to learn more about the experiences of athletes on the team, a monthslong administrative review was conducted. On July 19, 2022 the results of the review were shared with the team in an email from McDermott with the subject line “Onward and Upward”.  Athletes on the team were informed that “Coach Stone is our head coach and will remain our head coach” while also noting that there were “opportunities for improvement, particularly with communication across several areas” (Roberts & Scott, 2023, para. 14-15).  Both Macdonald, as well as Taze Thompson, a member of Metis Nation Alberta and Okanagan Indian Band, British Columbia left the team allegedly because of Harvard’s failure to respond to the situation, with Thompson opting to continue her hockey career at Northeastern (Roberts & Scott, 2023; Risom, 2023).

In advance of the Boston Globe article coming out, Coach Stone had written to the team noting that the article was going to be published, expressing her position that she had “…made it a priority as your coach to acknowledge and respond to direct feedback from the women in my program about my coaching style, and make concerted efforts to better support my players’ experiences” (Roberts & Scott, 2023, para. 5). 

The assistant coach, Sydney Daniels, who led a storied career at Harvard, left her position following that incident, eventually being named the first woman scout in the history of the Winnipeg Jets franchise.  A member of the Mistawasis Nêhiyawak First Nation in Saskatchewan, Daniels sued Harvard in January of 2023 alleging racial discrimination (Canadian Press, 2023).  On behalf of the Mistawasis Council, Chief Daryl Watson (2023), issued a statement noting that “…we stand in solidarity with Sydney Daniels and all Indigenous students who have experienced racism and discrimination at Harvard University. Racism has no place in any educational institution, and it is unacceptable that Indigenous students are being subjected to mistreatment” (para. 1).  The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), an organization representing 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, issued a statement on January 31, 2023 calling for Coach Stone’s resignation. FSIN Third Vice Chair Aly Bear commented, “Racism has no place in our society or locker rooms. A place where we entrusted our First Nations young women would be free from abuse and racism. This abuse should not be tolerated by any University, especially a highly regarded institution such as Harvard University. I truly hope Harvard will stand with the Indigenous students and protect future students from this type of racist behaviour” (Risom, 2023, para. 2). The statement noted that both Macdonald’s and Thompson’s “…grandparents were victims of the residential school system within Canada” (Risom, 2023, para. 4).

The Coach and Her Supporters

Prior to the public airing of these allegations, Coach Stone had a national and international reputation as a highly regarded and accomplished coach.  At the conclusion of her 26th year at Harvard, her teams had amassed 516 wins by the conclusion of the 2021-2022 season.  Her time as head coach was interrupted only once during her tenure when she took time away to serve as the head coach of the United States Olympic Women’s Ice Hockey Team that competed in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Under her leadership, U.S. women earned a silver medal in those Games.  Her record as a coach and that of her team abound with accolades and titles.  The team won the Ivy League Championship nine times; the ECAC tournament championship six times; and the ECAC regular season championship eight times. Her teams earned 12 NCAA tournament appearances; 6 NCAA Frozen Four appearances; and her teams competed four times for an NCAA championship. In 2022, she was named Ivy League Coach of the Year, an honor that accompanied other awards including Boston’s Most Influential Women Award in 2020 and the NCAA Silver Award in 2014 (Harvard Athletic Communications Staff, 2023).

As of this writing, Stone has served on the National Advisory Board for the Positive Coaching Alliance (PCA) since 2014. The vision for the PCA is “A world where every young person benefits from a positive youth sports experience with a coach who inspires them to become the best version of themselves in the game and in life” (PCA, 2023).  One of her contributions to the PCA was a series of podcasts under the title of “Make Everyone Better” that dealt with issues like early sport specialization, recruiting for character, whether athletes should compete in multiple sports in college, coach burnout, and recovering from a bad game (PCA Development Zone, n.d.).

In response to the allegations made by the 16 former players, 45 players signed on to a letter of support for her that was also shared with The Globe (Hohler, 2023). Additionally, “Stone’s supporters, in interviews and e-mails, effusively praised her for developing them as students, athletes, teammates, and leaders. They called her kind, caring, and swift to respond to personal crises and tragedies” (Hohler, 2023, para. 12). In a letter to the editor, Dr. Holly A. Johnson raised a concern that the opinions of 16 players that formed the basis of the article and a foundation for the assertion that there was a culture of fear on the team did not adequately capture the experiences of what she said were hundreds of women who played hockey at Harvard over the years. Johnson questioned why a story about a tough coach was even news and whether it would be news at all if not for the fact that the coach was a woman. She queried, “If women like Stone, a decorated coach, among the winningest in college women’s hockey, a ground-breaker, are taken down because of a tough coaching style, who would be left to lead our female athletes?” (Thompson, 2023, para. 3).  Johnson had played for Stone on her first Harvard team and served as captain of that team in 1994-1995, going on to serve as medical consultant for the team between the years 2013 and 2018 while also serving as the team physician for the U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey Team in 2014. Johnson is also secretary of the Friends of Harvard Hockey.

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences 2019 Survey of Athletes

In the accounting of a meeting athletic director McDermott had with players following Macdonald’s complaint to the athletic department in 2022, several former players commented on a reference she made   to a survey of athletes undertaken in 2019. As per Hohler’s (2023) reporting, “…while addressing the team after Stone’s outburst, [McDermott] said a 2019 survey…ranked the women’s hockey team last among the university’s 42 varsity sports programs in the quality of its student-athletes’ experiences” (para. 17).

The announcement regarding the survey was made in September of 2019 by then dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, Dr. Claudine Gay.  According to press releases and statements made by the dean and athletic director at the time, the survey was initiated in anticipation of the athletic department’s centennial anniversary in 2026. Employing the expertise of an outside firm, the scope of the study included an examination of the experience Harvard athletes were having on their teams, the culture of programming, and department structure (Gazette Staff, 2019).  Of the 827 Harvard athletes who participated in the study, they believed that the experience overall was providing them with valuable life lessons (93%) and they were generally happy with their decision to attend Harvard (91%). [1] While the vast majority of athletes indicated that they had positive experiences associated with their participation, they also reported challenges, with nearly 65% reporting that they did find it difficult to meet the demands of their athletic careers while balancing their academics and their social lives (Aggarwal-Schifellite, 2020).

Questions were raised at the time the report was undertaken in terms of whether the athletic department had a cultural problem and pressures of competing within NCAA Division I were manifesting in numerous scandals within the athletic department.  In 2016, the Harvard men’s soccer season was cancelled following the release of documents showing that the men’s team had been sexualizing women soccer recruits using rating sheets.  Within weeks of that incident, it was disclosed that members of the men’s cross country team had engaged in a similar practice, noting that by the time this was discovered they had addressed the “culture” issue on their team (Mettler, 2016).

Harvard administrators also denied that the impetus for the report stemmed from circumstances arising from alleged financial improprieties on the part of the men’s fencing coach who sold his home to the father of two fencers for a price that was $300,000 above the assessed value of the home. One of the sons was a member of the team at the time of the sale while the second son was admitted to Harvard shortly after the sale of the home. The fencing coach was dismissed for violating Harvard’s conflict of interest policy. While both the fencing coach and the father would later be acquitted of federal bribery charges, the review of Harvard athletics was undertaken at a time when other institutions, such as Yale, Stanford, and the University of Southern California, were in the process of instituting greater oversight in response to fallout from revelations that athletic department personnel (coaches and administrators) had accepted payments from parents in exchange for falsely designating students as athletic recruits in order to get them into top-tier colleges and university through a third-party broker (Berger & McCafferty, 2019).

Harvard’s Ongoing Failure to Treat Indigenous People With Dignity

During the time that Macdonald and Thompson were playing on the team and Daniels was on the coaching staff, Harvard was in the midst of a study initiated by then President Lawrence S. Bacow to examine the University’s “…relationship to and participation in the historically oppressive regimes of slavery and colonialism” (Steering Committee, 2022, p. 2). The issue at hand was the recognition that Harvard’s Peabody Museum maintains in its collection the bodies of 15 individuals believed to have been enslaved.  What has been known for a much longer period of time is the fact that Harvard through the Peabody has had one of the largest collections of Native human remains in the country (Harvard Steering Committee, 2022).  Across the University it is estimated that they hold in their possession as many as 7,000 Native remains, including a collection of hair samples taken from hundreds of Native children forced into government-run boarding schools (Chung, 2022). That figure may not account for remains of Indigenous peoples from other parts of the world (Baca et al., 2022).  Even after the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) by the United States Congress in 1990, and numerous requests from Native Americans, Harvard still had not returned the remains of those Native ancestors to their families to be laid to rest (Baca et al., 2022).  In the aftermath of a letter to President Bacow from Native American graduates of Harvard Law School and other Harvard programs wherein they noted that the Harvard Committee’s report had treated the issue of Native remains “felt like an afterthought” (Baca et al., 2022), the Peabody Museum issued an apology to Indigenous families and announced that they would begin the process of returning the hair samples taken from children starting in the 1930s to living relatives and the tribes they came from (Chung, 2022).

Just a few months before the Harvard Committee issued its report, the Federal government had published the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report.  As described by Baca et al. (2022), “The Boarding School Report notes the active, conscious, suppression of indigenous languages, cultures, and religions over the last 150 years by the federal government, with assistance and cooperation from many educational institutions. Harvard’s Report totally fails to realize how trauma from federally created boarding schools’ stealing our youth from their tribal home and being sent away, many to die and lie in unmarked graves mimics and is part of the trauma related to the University’s holding so many of our stolen Ancestors” (para. 5). They further noted, “No real input was sought from current Harvard Native students. If such had been sought, the Report surely would have noted the current, ongoing trauma experienced by students who feel unable to enter the Peabody Museum, the unease they feel simply walking past the Museum because of cultural and Ancestor restrictions due to housing so many stolen tribal Ancestors” (para. 4). 

When Coach Stone angrily made reference to “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” to a team that included two Native players and in the presence of a Native assistant coach, she was doing so within this larger context. According to Harvard’s Common Data Set for the academic year 2021-2022, there were five students who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native in the first-year class, with 16 in total in an undergraduate class of 7,153.

Considering Allegations Against Harvard’s Coach Stone in Light of Other Cases

Based on the public record, this case is distinguished from other cases involving women head coaches of women’s teams accused of creating toxic environments.  Unlike Griesbaum v. University of Iowa (2017) and Stollings v. Texas Tech University (2022), Coach Stone held onto her position, allegedly apologizing to the team for her conduct.  While Athletic Director McDermott offered unequivocal support for Stone, she did indicate that there was some kind of expectation (perhaps a personal improvement plan) that Stone would work on her communication and response to feedback.  The effectiveness of the apology is in question, however, given that the First Nation players left the team, a lawsuit alleging race and other forms of discrimination was filed by the assistant coach Sydney Daniels, who was also Indigenous and a former captain, and other former members of the team felt that their complaints had not been heard and responded to by Harvard’s administration.  More continues to unfold on this case as Sydney Daniels lawsuit against Harvard proceeds.


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[1] The number of athletes participating in the 2019 study represented approximately 70% of the total number of athletes competing on Harvard teams at the varsity level (827 out of approximately 1200 athletes) (Berger & McCafferty, 2019).

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