By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., Senior Contributor & Professor, Sport Management, Drexel University, email@example.com
Just days before the University of Nebraska — Lincoln (UNL) softball team (otherwise known as the Huskers) was to start practice in the fall of 2019, members of the team broke their silence about alleged mistreatment they were subjected to while playing for long-time head coach Rhonda Revelle. Aided by the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative (CAAI) (2019), an organization that “fights for college athletes’ rights through legal support and creative advocacy campaigns”, Nebraska softball players threatened a boycott as they voiced their opposition to the reinstatement of their head coach and learned that findings from an internal inquiry into team complaints would not be shared with them or the public.
According to reporters covering Nebraska softball (Bartle; 2019; Grell, 2019), the UNL athletic department announced in July of 2019, approximately two months after the end of the 2018-2019 season that Coach Revelle had been placed on administrative leave while a review of the program was underway. Efforts to obtain further details regarding the issues prompting the review from UNL athletic officials were met with assurances that athlete concerns were taken seriously but as a personnel matter, the department was constrained in what it could report.
At the time of the review, Ravelle had completed her 27th year as a head coach at UNL and held the distinction of being the winningest coach in Nebraska athletic history with a record of 989 wins and 568 losses (a .635 winning percentage). Considered among the elite coaches in college softball, being one among only 30 coaches to surpass the 900 games won milestone, Ravelle served as president of the American Fastpitch Softball Association for three terms between 1999 through 2016 and earned conference coach of the year honors on four occasions (Bartle, 2019; UNL Sports Information Staff, 2019).
UNL Softball Players’ Efforts to Voice Concerns About Mistreatment
According to a press release issued by the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative (2019), at the end of the 2019 season team members documented their grievances in end of the season surveys.1 Fearful of retaliation, the players stripped their responses of identifying markers, knowing that despite claims regarding the anonymous nature of the surveys, responses to inquiries regarding their year in school, position, and scholarship status could be traced back to them individually. As a group, they agreed to put in default responses, with all players claiming to be seniors on full scholarships (Strauss, 2019). Player concerns fell into three broad categories: alleged verbal and physical abuse; excessive practice demands and NCAA violations; and pressures to play while injured.
Players reported coaches bullying them, calling them derogatory names, and requiring them to be accessible and responsive to text messages around the clock. The players also reported being subjected regularly to improper questions about their personal lives and their commitment to the team. Coupled with intense scrutiny around injury, multiple softball players shared stories of playing hurt and being discouraged from seeking medical treatment. At least one of the athletes revealed suffering from suicidal thoughts and several others were struggling with mental health issues. Despite NCAA rules that limit the number of hours players are permitted to practice per week, the Huskers softball players described circumstances where those rules were routinely ignored, resulting in players being asked to falsify information on NCAA compliance forms. Athletes hesitating or refusing to certify incorrect information on compliance forms were allegedly punished for their perceived insubordination (College Athlete Advocacy Initiative Press Release, 2019).
Nebraska Softball Players’ Threatened Boycott Never Happened
After two months of an internal investigation including a team meeting with UNL athletic director Bill Moos and interviews with an outside law firm, Revelle was reinstated just days before the team’s first practice scheduled for Labor Day Weekend in 2019. That decision “left the team reeling”, according to Washington Post reporter Ben Strauss (2019), who interviewed seven current and former players and the parents of players, who “All spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern that they could face retaliation from the school” (para. 4).
While the players contemplated a boycott of the first fall practice, in the end they reported as they were required to do. A representative from UNL’s Office of Communications met with reporters who explained that the players had held a team-only meeting following that practice. A “joint” statement was also given to reporters that read as follows: “We started with a conditioning test that everyone passed. We had a fun, energetic, high-paced team practice. We’re closer than we’ve ever been on and off the field” (Grell, 2019b). Players were not made available after the practice to entertain questions from reporters.
Was there really a problem with player mistreatment in the Husker softball program from the perspective of management? On the surface, it might appear not given that Coach Revelle was restored to her position as head coach at the start of the new season. In announcing Coach Revelle’s return to the program, Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos stated, “After reviewing the findings, I have concluded that Coach Revelle will continue to lead our softball program. Coach Revelle and her staff understand the seriousness of the student-athlete concerns and are committed to providing a complete and positive student-athlete experience on the field, in the classroom and in life” (Beideck, 2019, para. 1). Was the administration placing the critique of Coach Revelle within the context of a storied program that had realized its worst season since 1994 in 2019, with a record of 21-31; lost more games than they won against Big Ten opponents (31-40) during the past three years; and struggled to qualify for the NCAA tournament (Grell, 2019b)? Was Revelle effectively given a second chance? And what to make of Grell’s (2019c) account of that first practice where an administrator was on site throughout the practice? Could this be an indication that Ravelle’s job performance is being monitored or was this a management issue to get past the press interest following the threatened boycott?
Was there hesitancy to change leadership in the women’s softball program because of frequent staff turnover in recent years within the Nebraska athletic department? The complaints regarding Coach Revelle occurred at a time when A.D. Bill Moos had been on the job for less than two years. During Moos’ transition, the University of Nebraska owed a total of $14.1 million to former head football coach Mike Riley who had been hired and fired by the previous athletic director, Shawn Eichorst; a buyout for Eichorst after his termination; and financial obligations to eight full-time assistant football coaches who served under Riley. Moos himself had been awarded a five-year contract guaranteeing him $5.5 million over its duration with a promised retention bonus of $1.25 million (Markon, 2017). In Coach Revelle’s case, her contract is not scheduled to be renewed again until 2023 and she received a $62,000 increase in base salary from $188,000 to $250,000 following a satisfactory performance evaluation in 2018 (Grell, 2019b).
Were the softball players really heard and did their voices matter? Expressing dismay and resignation in response to the manner in which some players’ concerns were addressed, one Nebraska player commented, “This solidifies why more student-athletes don’t come forward, why they stay silent. Who listens to us? Who are we supposed to talk to? How do we have a voice in anything” (Strauss, 2019, para. 6)?
Why did the softball players not boycott? In the absence of players commenting after the first practice, it is difficult to know the reason(s) why they decided not to boycott but like many players attempting to challenge the system they work under, the pressures to go along even when the system is not fair can be considerable. Whether the Nebraska softball players knew it or not, they stood to lose their scholarships if they boycotted because of NCAA Bylaw 184.108.40.206.3, which provides permission to athletic departments to reduce or cancel athletic scholarships if an athlete fails to report to practice or makes only a token appearance after signing a letter of intent, application of tender, or financial aid agreement.
In Coach Revelle’s bio published on the Nebraska softball website, her philosophical approach to coaching is described as one where “She places the student-athlete first in every decision she makes and is committed to developing not only great players, but great students and citizens as well” (NU Athletic Communications Staff, 2019). If players had felt as if they had been placed first, why did they feel the necessity of organizing and reaching out to the College Athlete Advocacy Initiative to help them raise concerns about behavior that they found to be harassing, excessive, intimidating, retaliatory, and endangering to their health? If athletes know that they cannot be candid in end of season surveys because of a threat of retaliation, then what is the value of athlete feedback in coach evaluations? And does this possibly explain why stories about athletes revealing the dimensions of the toxic cultures they operate in surface not through internal review processes but in publicly mediated spaces?
Baer, J. (2019, August 30). Nebraska reinstates softball coach despite players’ complaints of toxic program culture. Yahoosports.com. Retrieved from https://www.msn.com/en-us/sports/more-sports/nebraska-reinstates-softball-coach-despite-players-complaints-of-toxic-program-culture/ar-AAGAcaj
Bartle, D. (2019, July 9). Nebraska softball coach Rhonda Revelle placed on administrative leave. DailyNebraskan.com. Retrieved from http://www.dailynebraskan.com/sports/nebraska-softball-coach-rhonda-revelle-placed-on-administrative-leave/article_8e52edcc-a2c7-11e9-8a2d-43b1885bd7c1.html
Beideck, S. (2019, July 11). Former Huskers, Division I softball coaches voice support for Nebraska’s Rhonda Revelle. Omaha.com. Retrieved from https://www.omaha.com/sports/college/huskers/former-huskers-division-i-softball-coaches-voice-support-for-nebraska/article_e7d967f4-523c-532a-9527-80285e0e6e3c.html
Beideck, S. (2019b, August 25). Rhonda Revelle returns to coaching Husker softball team. Theindependent.com. Retrieved from https://www.theindependent.com/sports/college/huskers_hq/rhonda-revelle-returns-to-coaching-husker-softball-team/article_f4437f8c-c7a4-11e9-b7da-33e0f8318478.html
College Athlete Advocacy Initiative. (2019). Retrieved from https://4collegeathletes.org/
College Athlete Advocacy Initiative. (2019, August 30). Nebraska Softball Athletes Unite in Opposition to Mistreatment: Team rejects University decision to reinstate coach, demands access to report. Press release. Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/436178897123194/posts/press-releasenebraska-softball-athletes-unite-in-opposition-to-mistreatmentteam-/532919920782424/
Grell, C. (2019a, July 10). Longtime NU softball coach Rhonda Revelle placed on administrative leave. Journalstar.com. Retrieved from https://journalstar.com/sports/huskers/softball/longtime-nu-softball-coach-rhonda-revelle-placed-on-administrative-leave/article_d654f6a8-b2aa-5f39-b7c1-5ebc09b78807.html?utm_content=buffer12bc9&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=LEEDCC
Grell, C. (2019b, August 25). After lengthy review, Rhonda Revelle will return as Nebraska’s softball coach. Journalstar.com. Retrieved from https://journalstar.com/sports/huskers/softball/after-lengthy-review-rhonda-revelle-will-return-as-nebraska-s/article_5b4dc278-13f1-50c1-ac22-e4f5ea254d2a.html#1
Grell, C. (2019c, September 2). NU softball players report for practice. Fremonttribue.com. Retrieved from https://fremonttribune.com/nu-softball-players-report-for-practice/article_3bb59341-4895-5e04-b74c-2d9cfb5fc513.html
McDevitt, D., & Gendler, R. (2019, May 6). Softball players detail years of mistreatment by coach, neglect by Cornell athletics. The Cornell Sun. Retrieved from https://cornellsun.com/2019/05/06/softball-players-detail-years-of-mistreatment-by-coach-neglect-by-cornell-athletics/
NFCA Staff. (2019). Rhonda Revelle. Bio. Retrieved from https://nfca.org/rhonda-revelle-president-3714
Staff. (2019, August 30). Multiple Nebraska softball players filed complaints of harassment, emotional abuse against Revelle. 1011.now. Retrieved from https://www.1011now.com/content/news/Multiple-Nebraska-softball-players-filed-complaints–558838921.html
Strauss, B. (2019, August 30). Complaints against Nebraska softball coach show college athletes’ limited options. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/
University of Nebraska Sports Information Staff. (2019). Rhonda Revelle: Head Coach-Softball: Bio. Retrieved from https://huskers.com/coaches.aspx?rc=2515&path=softball
1. In the Strauss (2019) article, the description of the survey and the way the athletes completed it suggest that it was an end of season survey. In an account from Grell (2019b), the surveys are referred to as exit surveys. There is a nuance here in that exit surveys are administered to athletes who no longer have eligibility and those surveys (or interviews) are required by NCAA regulation. Based on the description in Strauss (2019) it seems more likely that the surveys were end of season surveys.