Rutgers Softball Coaches Under Scrutiny for Alleged Mistreatment of Players

Nov 8, 2019

By Ellen J. Staurowsky, Ed.D., Senior Contributor & Professor, Sport Management, Drexel University,
How were Rutgers softball players treated during the 2018-2019 season by their new head coach, Kristen Butler, and volunteer assistant coach, Marcus Smith, who was Butler’s husband? Were the players subjected to an environment of intimidation and risky physical training practices that jeopardized their mental and physical well-being? Or were these characterizations inaccurate and merely complaints from team members who resisted change that was necessary to elevate a struggling program that had not been successful competing in The Big Ten nor in its previous conferences (the American Athletic Conference and the Big East)?
From all outward indications, when Rutgers hired Kristen Butler in June of 2018 its prospects of reviving a team that had been struggling for many years improved dramatically. Her softball pedigree was impressive. As an undergraduate, she had played at perennial Southeastern Conference (SEC) powerhouse, University of Florida. Following graduation, she went on to compete at the professional level both in the United States and in Japan (Choquette, 2018).
As a coach, Butler had earned a reputation for elevating the teams she took on, having spent the four years previous to her hiring at Rutgers turning around the program at the University of Toledo (2014-2018) with a four-year record of success that had not been seen in 23 years. Just weeks before she assumed the reigns of the Rutgers program, she had been recognized as the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Softball Coach of the Year, capping a year when the Toledo softball team had its first 30-win season since 1995 and paving the way for the team to share in the MAC West regular season title (Choquette, 2018).
Just 13 months after her hiring, however, a 23-page legal notice on behalf of Erin Collins, a player who transferred out of the program, and seven anonymous players prepared by Minneapolis-based attorney, Martin J. Greenberg, was sent to Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs and deputy athletic director Sarah Baumgartner (Stanmyre & Sargeant, 2019a). In an investigative report published by NJ Advance Media, the narrative of an underdog program staging a comeback of admirable proportions collides with serious allegations of misconduct on the part of the coaches running the program (Stanmyre & Sargeant, 2019a).
According to anonymous accounts from players and parents as well as details from two identified players, the climate created by Butler and Smith was rife with tension. Players feared losing their spot on the team and having their scholarships revoked despite NCAA and Big Ten prohibitions against such action. Practice sessions were experienced as unsafe and threatening, with six players describing one drill where assistant coach Brandon Duncan was believed to have intentionally hit them with pitches and another involving a ground ball drill run by head coach Butler where a player was injured. Five players reported that coaches would confiscate their phones and scan through the content offering inappropriate commentary without consideration for player privacy. Seven players entertained a belief that Butler was trying to create an atmosphere to run off players who had been recruited by the previous coaching staff (Stanmyre & Sargeant, 2019a).
Seemingly illustrative of the perils the players faced at practice was the alleged punishment the team suffered after players exceeded the cap on meal money by $6 dollars during one road trip. As punishment, some members of the team were required to run six 100-yard sprints, each sprint in under 17-seconds, one sprint for each of the dollars spent above the limit. The players who were required to participate in the sprints were told that if they stopped or failed to finish in time, everyone would have to start the cycle again. Even after one player, Erin Collins, blacked out and was being treated by an athletic trainer, the sprints continued, with a second player collapsing (Stanmyre & Sargeant, 2019a).
Coach Butler’s husband, Marcus Smith, was alleged to have provoked enough unease that players went to athletic department staffers during the year to express concerns about his insensitivity and lack of respect for player boundaries. Numerous players who were compelled to turn over their cellphones at night to Smith during road trips, in accordance with a team-imposed rule, believed that phones that had been turned off when submitted were tampered with and the content of their phones reviewed. In a damaging description of the atmosphere the players were faced with, several players recalled Smith stepping onto the bus after a game and saying that it “smelled like period blood” (Stanmyre & Sargeant, 2019a).
Complaints to deputy athletic director Baumgartner, the compliance office, and others within the athletic department and university failed to yield relief for the players.
Response from Coach Butler
For each of the allegations described by the players, Coach Butler offered a different perspective. When asked to respond to concerns expressed by players and parents that the conditioning sessions the players were subjected to surpassed standards for Division I programs resulting in players vomiting and collapsing from strain and fatigue, Coach Butler responded that such a depiction was not an accurate characterization of what happened in practice, offering an assurance that athlete well-being was always a priority. She further stated:
Competing at a Big Ten level requires a commitment to conditioning. The results speak for themselves. Last year we finished sixth in the Big Ten, our best finish ever. We also earned our first postseason tournament invitation since 1994. The department reviewed these allegations in consultation with sports health professionals. The workouts were aligned with those that I participated in myself as a student-athlete and those that I have conducted with my prior Division I programs. Workouts were more intense than the team’s previous experience, but well in line with Division I standards. A member of the strength and conditioning or athletic training staff is present at all conditioning exercises (Rutgers athletics response…, n.d.).
Claims that Coach Butler improperly revoked athletic scholarships from players were met with an explanation that the awarding of athletic scholarships was subject to review under terms established by NCAA and Big Ten regulations and athletes may lose scholarships because, among other things, serious misconduct. Concerns about overly rigorous and punitive conditioning drills were dismissed by Coach Butler who merely stated that conditioning was just a regular part of practice. Any instance of a player being hit by a ball at practice were attributed to the nature of the game and not intentionality on her part or that of her coaching staff (Rutgers athletics response…. n.d.).
Controversial Response From RU Athletic Director Pat Hobbs and Fallout
Despite denials from the RU athletic department that there is a problem with the culture there, when contacted by the reporters from NJ Advance Media for a comment about the story, RU athletic director Hobbs is alleged to have “launched into a profanity laced tirade” (Stanmyre & Sargeant, 2019a). Texting an apology for his choice of words an hour later, Hobbs added “This narrative around RU being a place where abuse is tolerated is bull—-. But it gets clicks” (Stanmyre & Sargeant, 2019b).
NJ Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) and Senator Joseph Cryan (D-Union) pointed to the failure of the athletic department to respond in a meaningful way to the complaints expressed by softball players and their parents as troubling unto itself but indicative of multiple failures in the leadership exercised by athletic director Hobbs. Both called for Hobbs’s resignation with Cryan stating “The idea that time goes by without a response from Rutgers on any abuse allegation given its history is just absolutely shocking. And the idea that they would resent anybody asking about it is even more shocking” (Stanmyre & Sargeant, 2019c).
In an effort at damage control, Hobbs issued a second apology to the Rutgers community writ large, acknowledging that his response to NJ Advance Media reporters was not appropriate nor emblematic of his role as a leader and role model for the program. Sharing more details about the attention given to the players’ complaints, he explained that remedial action where necessary had been taken, with the self-report of one identified NCAA Level III violation involving players practicing two hours more than they should have during a two-month period of time and the separation of volunteer coach, Marcus Smith, from the team (Breitman, 2019).
Previous History of Coaching Abuse Targeting Athletes at Rutgers
A particular vulnerability for Rutgers is its previous recent history with coaching abuse. It was just six years ago that revelations regarding then RU head men’s basketball coach, Mike Rice, were addressed. In that case, it took a whistleblower to draw attention to video evidence of physical and mental abuse of men’s basketball players (Prunty, 2013). The University went on to reach a $300,000 settlement with Derrick Randall, one of the players on Rice’s team who claimed he was “chronically and heinously targeted and abused, both physically and psychologically” by Rice (SI Wire, 2016). In 2017, the Rutgers women’s swim coach, Petra Martin, was fired in the midst of allegations from four athletes and their parents describing a toxic culture where athletes were allegedly subjected to physical and verbal abuse (Sargeant, 2017). One of the swimmers who raised concerns about Martin, Morgan Perrotti, was represented by Greenberg (Sargeant, 2017), the attorney now representing the RU softball players in this case.
Responses from NJ Officials and Rutgers President
Although the delivery of the 23-page notice to Hobbs and Baumgartner in July of 2019 did not evoke a public response from Rutgers officials for four months, the report from NJ Advance Media drew the attention of several New Jersey lawmakers within hours of its publication. NJ Senator Richard Codey commented “The coaches come across as sick individuals. But they’re denying it. They have that right. You have to have an independent agency come in and evaluate what did or did not go on. The President himself has to step in and say, ‘Let’s get to the truth of this as soon as we possibly can’. Otherwise it’s a heck of a bad stain on the University” (Stanmyre & Sargeant, 2019b). Under public pressure, Rutgers president Robert Barchi announced within a day of the report that “While I am confident that Athletics has followed appropriate procedures here, out of an abundance of caution I have nevertheless called for an outside investigation into the reported allegations” (Breitman, 2019, para. 5).
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who received criticism as the owner of the professional women’s soccer franchise Sky Blue FC for sub-par facilities and player support in 2018, issued a statement in support of the Rutgers women softball players, describing the allegations as “deeply troubling”. A spokeswoman for Governor Murphy, Alyana Alfaro, further commented that the “He [the Governor] stands by the athletes of Rutgers in their fight for fair treatment” (Mills, 2019).
In an October 17, 2019 message posted on the Rutgers Softball twitter account, there is a photo of Coach Butler lecturing at the She Breaks Barriers Coaching Clinic. The event was part of a collaboration between athletic shoe and apparel company, adidas, and youth coaching organization, Up2Us Sports (adidas, 2019). The four-hour program was hosted on the International Day of the Girl to launch a digital coaching curriculum designed to educate coaches about how to better mentor female athletes with the goal of keeping girls in sport (adidas & Up2Us Sports, 2019). Butler is credited with helping to design this curriculum.
This contrasts with the reported exodus of ten (10) players, or 58% of the roster, who left the Rutgers program between October 2018 and July 2019 (Rutgers athletics response…, 2019).[*] Although some of the attrition in the program is attributable to graduation, the allegations of mistreatment create context to consider the reasons why other players left the program. And it is notable that two of the spaces that opened on the roster were filled with graduate student recruits from Alabama (ranked #5 in the nation in 2019) and Texas Tech (ranked #15 in the nation in 2019) (NCAA Women’s Softball RPI, 2019).
Will the independent review provide clarity on what happened on the Rutgers women’s softball team between players and coaches during the 2018-2019 season? Only time will tell. However, this pattern of athletes voicing concerns and objections to the manner in which they are treated through existing avenues within athletic departments is one that increasingly reveals that athletes do not feel that athletic departments are responsive to the need for a change in culture.
[*]This statistic comes from a question raised by Stanmyre and Sargeant to Coach Butler in the Rutgers Athletics Response (2019). The statistic itself is not contested but it is unclear in tracing back using the online roster for 2019 if the players listed there are the ones who finished the season. In effect, the 58% calculation would be lower if the five seniors listed in the online roster were taken out of the calculation. According to Stanmyre and Sargeant, ten players left the team, which represented the “most turnover of any Rutgers program last year”.
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Stanmyre, M., & Sargeant, K. (2019c, November 1). ‘It’s time for Pat Hobbs to go’: 2nd lawmaker calls for Rutgers AD to resign. NJ Advance Media. Retrieved from
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