By Martin J. Greenberg
For some time now I have focused my sports practice on assisting student-athletes who have come up against coaches whose methods seriously cross the line into the realms of possible abuse. I have deep rooted feelings about how coaches should practice their trade with honesty, integrity, and respect, but often these values are pushed aside to win at the expense of student-athletes, sometimes to the detriment of the health and safety of those student-athletes. Without the student-athletes there is no program, and universities, along with their conferences, have not done enough to protect what I see as a vulnerable population.
It was through this work that I came to the attention of Coach Samantha Brown. At the time Coach Brown was the Assistant Coach for Penn State’s Women’s Gymnastics program, a job she had dreamed of and been working towards for the whole of her career. Coach Brown has over 30 years of experience in the field of gymnastics, was on the USA National Team, and was a University of Georgia gymnast with All-Americ
an Honors, four straight Southeastern Conference titles, and two NCAA Championships. Coach Brown earned her degree in Risk Management and Insurance, owned and operated a private gymnastics program, and is one of only 51 Brevet judges in the NCAA. She is now an International Brevet judge. Coach Brown is a respected force in the world of women’s gymnastics.
But as the saying goes, not all that glitters is gold. As Coach Brown detailed for me what she was observing in the Penn State Women’s Gymnastics program, I knew we would have our work cut out for us. Not long into her tenure at Penn State, Coach Brown began compiling a journal of what she observed. Some of those observations included total disregard for injuries and doctor recommendations, obsession with weight that led to eating disorders, excessive injuries, failure to spot student-athletes in training, interference in the student-athletes’ personal lives, alleged physical and mental abuse, and bullying. What made the situation worse is that the alleged offending Associate Head Coach was married to the Head Coach, so reporting incidents never seemed to go anywhere. This is the very reason why we have Nepotism Laws that apply to state employees and universities. Reporting to the Athletic Department administration went nowhere. Reporting to the Office of Athletic Integrity also seemingly went nowhere. These women were effectively isolated and stuck in a pattern of alleged abuse with no out except by quitting the team. Why didn’t more quit, you may ask? Well, many students rely on scholarships to pay for their education, to quit the team meant loss of those scholarships, loss of peer standing, and family hardship. For many it was a no-win situation, and they choose to stick it out and try to survive. One whole class did exit the program, leaving the women’s gymnastics team with no seniors to anchor.
While admittedly, most of my clients are typically student-athletes and their parents, I took on the case of Coach Brown because it was one of the most disturbing situations I had examined. Coach Brown has a deep love and respect for her student-athletes. Like me, she has a deep commitment to the health and well-being of student-athletes, and the role athletics plays in their academic experience. However, what made this case for me different was that it was not only about alleged abuse of student-athletes, but also a potential employment abuse, hostile work environment, and whistleblower case.
After months of getting nowhere with and being frustrated with the Penn State Administration, and after my client was fired with cause for not returning to a hostile work environment, The Collegian broke the story with the help of not only Coach Brown, but some amazing women who were willing to open up about their struggles with their coaches. After going through all the normal channels and up the chain of command that are necessary in reporting a wrongdoing, Coach Brown was ignored and she ultimately had to spearhead a campaign to have an independent, open, fair, and impartial investigation of the gymnastics program. Coach Brown gained over 1400 signatures for an online petition from people interested in the Penn State Women’s Gymnastics program. The petition requested such an investigation of the program by the Penn State Administration. Through all of the allegations and media attention, the Penn State Administration still did nothing and worked to sweep the allegations under the giant rug where they tried to keep Sandusky. Firing my client was just a way to try to make their problem go away, and also a way to exit her contract while saving some money. Brown was essentially fired for not only blowing the whistle on alleged abusive coaching practices, but for taking a stand for her student-athletes.
The end result of Coach Brown’s reporting and the bad press was that the Associate Head Coach resigned, the Head Coach was eventually fired, and the Athletics Integrity Officer was demoted. The long list of administrators who tolerated, concealed, or were complicit in this egregious matter should also face the firing squad. Every time a university looks the other way or issues a dismissive punishment, it’s like dispatching an abuser back into the home of a domestic violence victim.
Even though actions were taken against these coaches, there was never any apology issued to Coach Brown by Penn State, her firing was not changed to without cause, nor was she paid what she was rightfully due. Penn State has made it difficult now for my client to find another coaching position. What’s worse, it seems that other high profile coaches in the gymnastics world have also been speaking against Coach Brown for whistleblowing. And this is part of the problem with the world of athletics as a whole. When a brave soul steps forward and speaks out against the abuse of a student-athlete, that coach needs to be praised, not blacklisted. So much damage is done to the physical and mental wellbeing of student-athletes when coaching practices, like those of the former Penn State Women’s Gymnastics coaches, stay in the dark.
In June of 2017, NCAA Gym News listed Coach Brown in their article entitled “5 Coaches We Want to See Move Up.” Coach Brown’s commitment to student-athletes has been unparalleled, and I could not agree more with her inclusion on this list. She is truly a hero in our midst for taking on the Penn State Way, and will always have my deepest respect and gratitude for putting herself on the line to speak for those who truly had no voice.
Thank you to my paralegal, Danelle A. Welzig, in drafting and editing this editorial, and for also being so involved and conscious of the safety and rights of student-athletes. Danelle is a graduate of the College of Charleston and holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology and a Paralegal Certificate. She has been working as a paralegal for over fifteen years in the areas of construction, real estate, and sports law.
 Medley, Caroline and Elizabeth Grimsley, “5 Coaches We Want to See Move Up,” NCAA Gym News, June 9, 2017. http://ncaagymnews.weebly.com/whats-new/5-coaches-we-want-to-see-move-up