Editor’s note: This story contains graphic accounts of alleged domestic violence and sexual assault. If you or someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault or domestic violence, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.
Ashley woke up naked in a shower of the communal bathroom in her dorm at the University of San Francisco. She had no idea how she got there. It was March 2018, her freshman year. Her clothes were next to her, but her underwear was missing. She had the taste of semen in her mouth. Disoriented and groggy, she made her way back to her room to lie down and piece together the night before. There was the nightclub where she met two men, one a current and one a former USF men’s soccer player. She had been drinking but remembers going back with them to “the soccer house,” where a group of players lived and regularly threw parties. From there things become hazy. Her last memory before she blacked out is of sitting on a couch with the two men who brought her there.
Back in her dorm room, Ashley began to fall asleep, and that’s when flashes of what she feared had happened hours earlier jolted her awake.
“I just had snippets of that night, and I was doing stuff with both of them,” Ashley tells Sports Illustrated, her voice cracking as she starts to cry. “I woke up and was like, what the heck was that about? And then, um, I knew something happened. My body really felt weird because I’m a virgin, and I just knew something happened.”
She lost her phone that night, and when she looked at her computer in the morning there were dozens of missed calls and text messages from her best friend. The friend tells SI she arrived at Ashley’s dorm room later that morning and found her “extremely emotional and upset.” After Ashley confided to her what she could remember of the night before, the friend says she purchased her a Plan B morning-after pill from a Target close to campus. (The friend’s account of how Ashley described the incident at the time aligns with the version Ashley told SI. Ashley is a pseudonym; SI agreed to requests by her and her friend to remain anonymous, as well as to not identify by name the players involved to protect Ashley’s privacy. There are several other instances in this story where the player is not named to protect the survivor’s privacy.)
Scared and confused, Ashley attempted to put this night behind her. But over the next few months, through the rest of the spring semester, Ashley would have panic attacks whenever she would see the men on the compact city campus.
Several months later, one of the players reached out over Instagram. She got up the courage to ask what happened that night, and he said he would tell her if they switched to Snapchat, where messages disappear after they have been read. (SI reviewed screenshots of these direct messages from the player’s Instagram account.) Over Snapchat, Ashley says the player confirmed her worst fear: He had penetrated her vaginally while at the soccer house. Ashley told the player she had been blacked out, but she says he simply wrote, “I know you wanted it...” Horrified, she blocked him from all social media and never spoke to him again.
For years, she grappled with the unknown and continued to experience panic attacks. Ashley never reported the assault, worrying that because she was drunk at the time, no one would take her seriously. “It’s his word against mine,” she says quietly.
The player Ashley exchanged messages with did not respond to requests for comment; the other identified by Ashley denied that the incident occurred, saying that he had never been to the nightclub Ashley recalls going to that night.
Ashley spent the rest of her college career in survival mode and didn’t talk much about that night, keeping as busy as possible with her studies and an off-campus job. But last summer, she decided she was ready to share, because she wasn’t alone. In a sudden, viral social media reckoning, dozens of past and present USF students began posting accounts, spanning nearly 20 years, of sexual harassment or abuse by members of the men’s soccer team.
Though most people’s knowledge of USF athletics is limited to Bill Russell and his two championships for the Dons, the school’s elite men’s soccer program has won five NCAA titles and, over the last 25 years, sent 14 players to MLS. But the current and former students posting online were now saying that players had consistently abused their status on campus. In the wake of last summer’s outcry, the school commissioned a report examining the years 2010 to ’20, released earlier this year, that “identified 11 soccer players accused of engaging in sexual misconduct over the past decade.” But the problems go deeper than what is contained in the report. SI spoke to five additional women, including Ashley, who did not speak to the USF-hired investigators but shared personal accounts from that time period of sexual misconduct or harassment by a men’s soccer player.
SI spoke to another former student who said that in 2003 she went to school administrators with concerns about men’s soccer players filming women without consent in intimate settings with their teammates. Over the years, there were several more instances where administrators were made aware of team members’ behavior. And yet, it continued.
The current and former students who spoke to SI made clear that certainly not all the players who suited up for the Dons over the last two decades engaged in abusive or harassing behavior. But their accounts point to a distinct culture of misconduct on the team that spanned three coaches, four athletic directors—though one, Scott Sidwell, was present for the majority of the time—and two school presidents. How that culture has been allowed to fester is a case study in how an elite college athletics program can turn—and stay—toxic. Even after all that came to light last summer, many of those affected say the school still isn't taking the problem seriously enough.
The University of San Francisco campus sits in the center of the city, boasting sweeping views of the Golden Gate Bridge. The private Jesuit institution often emphasizes to its 6,000 undergraduate students the importance of its core religious values. The first of those listed on USF’s website is the Jesuit tenet of cura personalis, which translates to English as “care for the whole person” and the university says “describes the respect we have for every individual’s intellectual, physical, and spiritual health and autonomy.”
The university’s picture-perfect exterior, though, was shattered in July 2020. It began when Will Midence, a 23-year-old Florida native who graduated the year before, was catching up with a former classmate amid the isolation of the pandemic. The classmate mentioned the reputation of their alma mater’s men’s soccer team, which prompted Midence to create and post an Instagram meme. “There were always rumors on campus about these guys. I posted it out of boredom, to be honest. I just thought my friends would see it,” he says. Above a freeze frame of the Glee character Sue Sylvester saying, “I am going to create an environment that is so toxic,” Midence typed, “The @usfca athletic department when choosing which student athletes will join the men’s soccer team.”
The post blew up, and he began receiving messages from past and present USF students with personal stories. Some were friends who had never before shared with him their account of being assaulted by a USF men’s soccer player. Others he had never met, including RAs who had warned younger students not to attend soccer parties and students who attended USF years before he enrolled. In response, Midence created a Change.org petition that listed several people’s anonymously told stories, including Ashley’s, and called upon the university to address a “culture of rape and terror perpetuated by the men’s soccer team.” It quickly picked up more than 5,000 signatures.
Midence’s post turned online campaign resonated with members of the USF community dissatisfied in general with the school’s handling of Title IX cases—complaints of gender-based discrimination, including sexual harassment or sexual violence, at an educational institution that receives federal funding—as well as a wider campus culture that many say deterred reporting, particularly for claims against athletes.
In response, the university hired an outside firm, Hulst & Handler, to conduct an investigation into the men’s soccer team and the university’s policing of it. The resulting 50-page report, released in January, chronicled, in at times stomach-churning detail, allegations against players over the last decade. And yet, the report concluded overall that it was more likely than not that sexual misconduct and disrespectful behavior toward women and queer individuals “was not pervasive among members of the USF men’s soccer team” and that the university acted “diligently” in response to reported allegations. Many members of the USF community struggled to square these conclusions with the report’s findings.
“I felt that the report was serving the purpose of absolving the university of blame,” says Aaron McNelis, who played for the team from 2018 to ’19 and says the behavior around him often made him uncomfortable.
Hulst & Handler declined an interview request from SI. In a statement, the firm said they “recognize that some of our findings counter widely held perceptions within the USF student community,” but that they are “confident” their conclusions are “supported by the facts.”
USF also declined SI’s requests for interviews with school administrators, including president Rev. Paul Fitzgerald. (Stephen Privett, president from 2000-14, also declined to comment.) Instead, a university spokesperson agreed to respond to questions over email. “USF takes all allegations of sexual assault very seriously, including the deeply troubling stories shared by survivors,” a statement from the school to SI read. “We thank the individuals who have courageously come forward and shared information with USF’s Title IX team and with the independent investigators. We also understand and respect the decision of those who opt not to share their stories with investigators.”
That sentiment was repeated frequently throughout USF’s 15 pages of replies. But there was also a note of defiance.
“We remain committed to hearing from survivors who choose to come forward with information on incidents, whether those occurred last week or a decade ago,” the statement said in one spot, before adding: “It is also important to emphasize, as noted on page 14 (and in footnote 20) of the [Hulst & Handler] report, how the number of sexual misconduct incidents within the men’s soccer program over a decade does not represent a pervasive culture.”
Nicola McLaughlin first heard about the reputation of the men’s soccer team even before she was a student at USF. In the fall of 2009, she was visiting her then boyfriend, who was living in the freshman dorms. McLaughlin would later testify in court that she recalled five students and a residential adviser openly discussing an alleged gang rape involving a group of men’s soccer players that they heard had happened the night before.
It was already a tense time on campus: Months earlier a USF senior and ROTC cadet, Ryan Caskey, had been charged with the rape of four female classmates. Prosecutors said he plied the women with alcohol during parties and then raped them when they were unconscious. (Caskey pleaded guilty, according to court records.) In response, female students had begun calling attention to the lack of sexual assault education at USF, particularly as it related to consent, and the university promised to increase its efforts.
McLaughlin transferred to the school a year later and quickly signed on as a news producer for USFtv, the university’s student-run television station. Initially she didn’t seek out sexual assault stories, but as a journalism student she instinctively began to document what she heard. McLaughlin, 31, now a lawyer in her native Australia, still vividly remembers being told about the men’s soccer team holding a “fresh meat party” at the same time as the freshman dance during move-in weekend, with the goal of steering the new and often inebriated students to “the soccer house.” (She has also testified to this under oath.) While the physical location of “the soccer house” shifted through different eras, an off-campus residence where multiple men’s soccer players lived and threw parties was a constant—as were warnings to new students from upperclassmen and RAs to avoid it.
McLaughlin thought she had enough leads to produce an investigative piece for USFtv, but says women were hesitant to go on camera. Many wanted to forget and move on, and some were afraid of the backlash from not only the soccer players but the rest of the student body. Big Friday-night matches at USF can sell out the on-campus stadium with close to 2,000 fans.
“If I think back, the men's soccer team had a lot of power on campus,” she says. “I was very aware that if I did a story, or looked into this, you just never knew who would tip off the university, and the university would get pissed off.”
Out of precaution, and to the objection of McLaughlin, her executive producer did tip off the university, emailing the school’s vice provost, Peter Novak, in early 2012 to tell him they were in preproduction on a story about “sexual hazing” by USF athletes. (SI reviewed the email.) The school began an investigation into the potential misconduct, and in a meeting with administrators, including then dean of students and current vice provost Julie Orio, McLaughlin says she was asked to hand over her notes and any information she had, including the names of the women she was planning on reporting about. McLaughlin, who was on a soon-to-expire student visa, felt she had little choice. “No one forced me to give them names,” she says now, “but when you are asked to an official meeting with the dean of students—I mean, it was the dean of students, you know?” (Per a USF spokesperson, “the university requested all of the information needed in order to pursue the investigation.”)
The school soon began contacting the women in McLaughlin’s reporting notes. As the investigation unfolded, her executive producer received harassing messages from a student defending the soccer players: “u gotta tell people to watch what they say,” one read, and in a reply, “someone on USFtv messed up big time.” In late February 2012, the producer sent an email, also reviewed by SI, to school administrators quoting the texts and saying that she and McLaughlin were both “very concerned.” McLaughlin especially feared retaliation since it had become known on campus that she was reporting the story, the producer wrote. In reply, McLaughlin and the executive producer were advised to contact Public Safety if they felt threatened; the school also issued a no-contact order to the student who sent the texts.
Looking back, McLaughlin says she realizes she had nowhere near the resources to publish a story of this scope. While she was never formally asked to kill the story, ultimately she decided to walk away.
But the university’s investigation, spurred by her reporting, continued. When Janet received an email from the Office of Student Conduct, Rights & Responsibilities requesting a meeting in February 2012, she immediately knew what it was about. In October 2010, her freshman year at USF, Janet attended an off-campus party hosted by a former member of the men’s soccer team. It was a Thursday night, and she remembers that many of the men’s soccer players at the party were not really drinking. They all had practice the next morning, but the party was full of alcohol, and Janet says they made sure her cup never remained empty. (Janet is a pseudonym; SI agreed to her request for anonymity to protect her privacy. Her case was documented in the Hulst & Handler report and, though the report did not name any of the women or accused players, in many cases, the details of a particular case made their identities clear.)
“The night unfolds, and I know that I can barely stand.” Janet tells SI. “I mean, it's obvious that I am incapacitated, inebriated beyond belief.”
Janet says she went into a bedroom with one of the players, and they began having vaginal sex. At one point, though, she realized there was “an audience of men” in the room with her. She says the player she came into the room with coerced her into engaging in oral intercourse with one of his teammates, but she was too intoxicated to give consent. According to the account Janet would later give police, the first player asked her to “help my friend out” and she said no; he asked again and she “reluctantly agreed.” Per the school’s interview file, Janet was “uncomfortable and hesitant but she did not stop because she was very intoxicated.” Janet recalls fading in and out and says when she came to, the player that brought her into the room was vaginally penetrating her, while another player’s penis was in her mouth. She has flashes of a third man touching her and says she finally jolted awake when the first player attempted to penetrate her anally.
“That's kind of when I snapped out of it and was able to say no,” she says. Janet remembers stumbling out of the room using her right hand to support herself against the wall as she tried to walk in her favorite pair of cowboy boots. The next day she left for fall break and pushed everything out of her head.
The first player declined an interview request with SI but replied to a list of detailed questions through his lawyers via email. “I understand this report reads terrible and I am in no way trying to degrade her or ever suggest forcing things on a girl is ever okay,” he wrote. “I can only speak for my conduct. I just maintain I did not violate her.” The player says he did participate in group sex at USF but that it was consensual. He added that it was common for members of the soccer team and other athletes to engage in group sex. In this case, he says he asked if his friend could join in but did not direct Janet to put her mouth on his friend’s penis; he also denies penetrating Janet anally and says he had no reason to believe she was incapacitated from drinking. The second player did not respond to messages from SI seeking comment.
Sixteen months later Janet had to relive the experience all over again. She says she was told in her interview with school administrators that no other woman with a complaint against a soccer player was willing to name their assailants, so the university couldn’t move forward. Feeling pressured, she finally wrote down two names. USF contacted the San Francisco Police Department, which sent two officers to take a police report. The meeting concluded with Janet’s bringing the school officials and the police to the house on Golden Gate Avenue where the incident occurred. (SI reviewed the police report, which aligns with the account Janet gave SI and the one that is documented in USF’s investigation file. That file included an interview from Janet’s roommate, who had been at the party with her and saw her rush out of the bedroom crying, and who Janet later confided in about what happened. A different friend whom Janet contemporaneously told about the incident also corroborated the account’s details to SI.)
All told, the school investigation prompted by McLaughlin’s reporting included interviews with 11 women and five past or present men’s soccer players, according to reports—reviewed by SI—written by USF officials at the time. These reports describe students telling the university about instances of group sex between women USF students and multiple men’s soccer players. The players involved largely did not see any problem with these interactions. But in addition to Janet, the school files documented one woman saying that she engaged in intercourse with multiple men present or participating on three separate occasions, and, each time, while she did not say no, “that was not something she wanted to do”; another woman’s interview file says she told the school a player came into the room and joined a sexual interaction she was having with another student and, though she assented in the moment to him staying, she "felt violated but I rationalized it as my fault because I was drunk.” Per these records, a former men’s soccer player also told the school that a teammate once referred to group sex as “team bonding.”
Janet’s interview file with the school says she did not want to pursue criminal charges and was “comfortable with the University taking action against her perpetrators but does not wish to take an active role within this process.” Because of this, the school said it could not go through the formal process for a sexual misconduct allegation. Ultimately, four players were found in violation of general university student conduct policies and required to write a “reflective paper” and perform five hours of community service. The athletic department also issued its own sanctions, removing three of the players from the team, including the one Janet says initiated her assault, and suspending one. All were allowed to remain at the school.
In response to questions about the investigation, USF said that in 2012 its Title IX program was in the early stages of development and pointed to the charges the players received under the conduct code.
Janet says she was not informed about the outcome of the school’s investigation. She tried to move on and poured herself into her academics, explaining that she needed to focus on something she had control over. But 11 months later, her experience became top of mind once again, when she came face to face with one of the men she says assaulted her. He was still on campus. “But that wasn't the real catalyst,” she says. “The catalyst was that I was starting to be approached by people who had heard that I was the one that gave names somehow.”
She panicked and emailed the Office of Student Conduct, Rights & Responsibilities. Two weeks later, she received an email with a list of hotlines she could call. There were campus counseling options, which she immediately ruled out. She no longer trusted any of the university employees. (SI reviewed this email exchange.)
“Their motto is so disingenuous. You think the Jesuit university thing would really be something that holds true,” she says. “I really believed in those values as a baby freshman. In the end, it was apparent that just wasn’t the case.”
As Janet tried to forge ahead, she was again pulled back into that night with the soccer players. She got word that the first player from her alleged assault had sued USF and Sidwell, the athletic director. A New Orleans native, Sidwell had played baseball at Tulane before graduating and starting his career in collegiate athletics as a coach there. He’d bounce among jobs in New Orleans—with Tulane and then the Saints and the AAA Zephyrs—and then at Syracuse, where he was an executive senior associate AD, before landing the top job at USF in 2011. Now Sidwell found himself on the hot seat.
The player alleged in his lawsuit that the AD had defamed him by giving his teammates the impression that he and the other players were kicked off the team because they had raped other USF students. The day they were removed from the team, Sidwell held a meeting with the men’s soccer team, in which he held up a Facebook meme that had been shared around campus: “Went to soccer house party, didn’t get raped.” Sidwell would testify that he told the team, “This is a reputation that’s been presented to me about you on our campus.”
In a three-week jury trial in June 2014, Sidwell defended himself by saying that his comments were based on the team’s reputation on campus and he was not making specific allegations against any individual player. In fact, as part of his response to SI’s questions, the player sent a letter from Sidwell dated April 2012 that states “neither the Athletic Department nor the University has accused you of rape or sexual misconduct.”
In court, Sidwell testified that he took disciplinary measures against members of the team because he had been informed about instances of “disrespect” toward women that violated USF’s student-athlete code of conduct, including “a pattern of behavior that had developed over a couple of years with similar like incidences where female students were targeted to have sexual relationships with, and then other members of the soccer team were invited to participate unknowing to the female students that were involved.”
It was during this trial that McLaughlin offered her testimony, sharing what she knew of the men’s soccer team’s reputation.
Sidwell’s strategy—saying that he was made aware that women at USF were being targeted for unwanted group sex, but that he was not accusing anyone of assault—may seem logically tenuous, but it was legally effective. The trial concluded in his and USF’s favor, and the player was ordered to pay the school more than $69,000 in legal fees. But little was done to address the root causes of the team’s cultural problems.
“In hindsight, I think they should have suspended the soccer program,” McLaughlin says. “I don't think just kicking a player off the team is going to stop an institutionalized problem.”
What’s more, questions would soon emerge over whether the case affected how the school handled the next set of allegations against a men’s soccer player.
USF did take some positive steps. In 2013, it launched “Think About It,” an online sexual violence and substance use prevention course for incoming freshmen. But in what became something of a pattern, the university seemingly undermined its own measures. Asked about this program, USF’s president, Fitzgerald, opined on the nature of sexual assault in a February 2015 interview with the school newspaper, saying, “manipulation often comes out of a desire for love. It’s really hard to find someone who’s malicious.” He added, “and again, alcohol clouds this stuff, we make bad judgments, we make bad choices.” Fitzgerald apologized for his comments at the time; the USF spokesperson wrote in response to SI’s questions that, “when he was referencing alcohol and ‘bad judgments,’ he was talking about the choices young men make under the influence of alcohol.”
A few months later, amid a nationwide reckoning with on-campus sexual assault, USF would institute a sexual misconduct policy that claimed zero tolerance. That policy was tested almost immediately, when allegations emerged against one of the most prominent players on the USF men’s soccer team from the last decade: Manny Padilla. A stout defender, he’d burst onto the scene in his first season, 2014, being named to the West Coast Conference’s all-freshman team and earning honorable mention for its all-conference squad. Eventually, he’d wear the captain’s armband for the Dons.
Early in the afternoon of Oct. 1, 2015, Julia Casciano, a sophomore chemistry student, was in her dorm room when Padilla asked to meet up. They lived in the same residence hall, one floor apart, and before that had engaged in a casual, consensual romantic relationship. But Casciano had broken things off after a few weeks when she learned Padilla had a girlfriend. Casciano went upstairs to Padilla’s room, wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt, under the impression they were just going to talk.
After a brief conversation, though, Casciano says Padilla “tried to coerce me into having sex with him.” She says she told him no, but he got on top of her and held her down, continuing to push her to have intercourse. She recalls telling him to stop “at least 10 to 15 times,” while his body weight was holding her down. Casciano froze. She says Padilla stuck his hand up her shirt and down her pants, “feeling me up.” Eventually, he stopped, and she got up and left. When Casciano returned to her dorm room, she says she told her roommate, who encouraged her to report what had happened.
Casciano did. She secured a no-contact order between her and Padilla, and the school began a Title IX investigation. In December 2015, the school informed her, via a letter reviewed by SI, that Padilla was found to be in violation of the school’s sexual misconduct policy as a result of touching her without consent. But Padilla was allowed to remain at the school, on campus and on the team. He was placed on university probation until May 2017 and given a deferred suspension until May 2016, meaning it would go into effect only if he committed another offense.
Through his agent, Padilla declined an interview request or to respond to specific questions. Instead, he sent a statement, which read in part: “As a young student-athlete at the University of San Francisco, I made poor decisions and engaged in irresponsible behavior towards others. I acknowledge those selfish actions and I take responsibility for them.” He added, “I am truly sorry for my actions and I regret that my actions hurt other people.”
While Padilla’s college soccer career continued uninterrupted, Casciano’s life was upended. Casciano was a strong student, earning mostly A’s as a freshman. But right after the incident with Padilla, she failed a physics midterm, forcing her to withdraw from the class. The course was offered only in the fall and was a prerequisite for other classes in her major, so she feared she would not be able to graduate in four years. She’d always loved to perform, but her role on USF’s Spirit Squad quickly became a source of stress. She was required to cheer at Padilla’s soccer games, and she says he would also show up to basketball games and make her uncomfortable by staring her down. On one occasion, she says the captain of her squad approached Sidwell, the athletic director, and asked him to remove Padilla from the gym, which he declined to do. Sidwell did not respond to questions from SI about this account; the Hulst & Handler report says he has “no memory” of this conversation.
During the two months while the investigation was ongoing, Casciano still lived one floor below the man she said assaulted her—even after the school knew, as documented in the Hulst & Handler report, that he violated his no-contact order by asking his roommate to prod her to drop her complaint. Casciano says she was told Padilla could not be moved until the investigation was complete. The Hulst & Handler report says she declined an offer for her to be moved to alternate housing, but Casciano explains she did not believe she should have to change dorms. “I was the one walking on eggshells around campus,” she says, “not him.”
Padilla was moved in January 2016, but later that semester, Casciano was frustrated again when she sought housing for her junior year. In an email reviewed by SI, the Title IX coordinator told Casciano they could accommodate her request to live in the Loyola Village on-campus apartments, but asked if it would be “satisfactory” if Padilla was placed in another building within the same complex.
USF says it took “all steps” to respond to Casciano’s requests. “The university is very sorry this survivor was not satisfied with the accommodations and response to her concerns,” wrote the USF spokesperson.
Casciano decided to transfer—a direct result, she says, of the lack of support she felt from USF to complete her degree on time while feeling safe on campus. She moved home to Carlsbad, Calif., gave up her cheerleading career and says she incurred several thousand more dollars in student debt as a result of lost aid and scholarships. Meanwhile, Padilla did not miss any soccer practices or games.
At the same time that it hired Hulst & Handler, in July 2020 the university announced that it had changed its policy, so that any student found responsible for sexual misconduct would be removed from intercollegiate athletics (the previous “zero tolerance” policy didn’t mandate this level of discipline for violators). SI reviewed the sexual misconduct policy currently published on the school’s website, made effective in August 2020, and found that the announced changes do not appear to be reflected. Asked about the discrepancy, the USF spokesperson said university policies “do not list every possible outcome of an investigation or incident of misconduct.”
While the Hulst & Handler report does not identify Padilla by name, Casciano was interviewed, and it directly addresses their case. The report states that Sidwell was informed that Padilla was found responsible in Casciano’s Title IX case but decided not to tell the men’s soccer coach, Eddie Soto. The report attributes this to a “lack of communication” within the athletic department and cites Sidwell’s belief that Title IX cases should be kept confidential. So Padilla played on.
The result, the report concluded, was a “misperception” on campus that soccer players are not held accountable for sexual misconduct. Casciano, though, recalls being told at the time by a USF official that Padilla’s coaches were informed. Regardless of who was or wasn’t told, the confusion and lack of trust on campus over how the university handled sexual misconduct cases impacted her and, very soon, would impact others. Soto declined an interview request from SI, saying that he cooperated in the investigation and has “nothing further to add.”
Even without Soto’s involvement, Sidwell could have imposed additional discipline on Padilla on his own. The school-commissioned report, though, suggests another reason why he may have chosen not to: “Multiple witnesses report that following the 2012 matter ... (and a lawsuit that followed, which named this Athletics Director as a defendant), the former Athletics Director regularly communicated to his staff that it was the policy of the Athletics Department to defer to the University on discipline issues. These witnesses surmise that because USF did not suspend the soccer player when he was found responsible in December 2015, the former Athletics Director may have been reluctant to suspend the soccer player from spring competition.”
USF asserts the 2012 investigation and subsequent lawsuit “did not have a substantive impact on later discipline.” Sidwell declined an interview request and did not reply to specific questions emailed by SI. In a general statement issued through the USF spokesperson, Sidwell said, “as is invariably the case in these situations, judgment calls are made based upon the best information available at specific points in time. I stand by the administrative actions that we took and the principles that motivated them.”
Casciano has long since moved on. She graduated from the University of San Diego and, now 25, lives in the Midwest, near the military base where her partner serves. But in July 2020, her phone began buzzing with messages from her former peers at USF, asking whether she’d seen this campaign spreading online.
“I exhausted all my resources (at the time),” Casciano says. “I did everything I felt like I could do in my power. I talked to everybody I felt like I could talk to. And so when it came up again, now, it just kind of felt like all my effort that I had put in previously might actually come to use now.”
Tanya was the same year at USF as Casciano. They knew each other through a mutual friend. She remembers seeing Casciano anguishing in the fall of 2015, “trying to get the university to help her and have there be consequences,” Tanya says. “They offered no support.”
Tanya says that, the following semester, she was raped by another player on the team in the soccer house. There were many reasons Tanya (a pseudonym) decided not to file a report with the university or the police. She did not want that night to define her college career, nor did she want to put herself and her family through the pain of reliving what had happened to her. She also thought about what Casciano had gone through—all her efforts, to what end?
Tanya’s experience wasn’t unique—nor was her reason for not reporting what happened to the school. In a 2015 incident, one woman described to SI meeting a player, one of Padilla’s teammates, at a local bar and blacking out shortly after. She says she woke up in her roommate’s bunk having intercourse with the player, who was aggressively biting her chest. She pleaded with him to stop, but he bit her harder; she remembers staring at the top bunk, waiting for it to be over. While going to kiss her on the mouth, she says he bit her lip so hard that she tasted blood.
A second woman described to SI being similarly assaulted by the player a year later, in 2016. This encounter began as consensual, but the woman says she told the player to stop when he became physically aggressive. She remembers being pinned down by him and starting to cry because she wanted to leave, but she says he forced penetration on her. He also bit off a piece of her lip. Both women say they wore high-necked shirts for the next week to cover the bruises he left on their necks and chests. (The woman from the 2016 incident showed SI a photo of what she said were her injuries.)
When reached by phone by SI, the player said he did not remember these incidents but acknowledged he has bitten sexual partners and said he feels bad if he “overdid it.”
The first woman says she filled out a report on one of the online reporting systems used by USF, Callisto, and saved the draft to submit later. A year later, when she was told the player had assaulted other students, she went back to submit the report but found that the system had deleted it. That glitch, she says, was “enough to deter me” from following through. The second student had heard rumors of a sexual misconduct case against Padilla, who was still being celebrated on campus for his on-field accolades. Her lack of belief in the school was one reason she did not file a complaint against the player.
In early 2017, a little more than a year after Casciano’s complaint and while Padilla was still on university probation, a female student who was a freshman at the time told SI that Padilla groped her and forced her to kiss him at a party at the soccer house. They’d met once previously and exchanged social media information, but she’d stopped replying to his persistent messages inviting her to hang out. A few months later, she ran into him at this party, where she says he herded her away into a dark hallway, pinned her arms over her head and asked her what he got for bringing her a flower and a drink. She says she was “terrified” and let him kiss her to get out of the situation; he groped her, as well. Padilla continued to send her messages on social media, she says, which escalated into pictures of his penis. Finally, she says she filed a report through the online reporting system but heard nothing.
“What was the point [of reporting]?” the student says. “We would just be ignored. It was a feeling that sort of permeated throughout campus.”
Padilla did not reply to questions about this incident. The university said it investigates all reports of sexual misconduct and that it sent every report it received between 2010 and ’20 to the Hulst & Handler investigators, but acknowledged issues with the Callisto reporting system, including students thinking they had submitted a report but instead the system having only saved it. The school did not directly address questions about this incident.
Padilla’s reputation was so poor on campus that in the fall of 2017, a marketing employee in the athletic department says she and a group of colleagues raised concerns to their direct supervisor about Padilla’s scheduled involvement with an “I Heart Consent” campaign. Their supervisor then sought to remove Padilla from the campaign. But a few days later, the employee says that a high-ranking athletic department administrator called her and her supervisor into a meeting and admonished them for spreading rumors about Padilla.
The Hulst & Handler report discusses this situation, saying that this administrator did not have knowledge about Casciano’s Title IX case. But the marketing employee recalls him mentioning a case against Padilla to them, saying that it had already been resolved. The USF spokesperson asserts that “coaches and Athletic Department employees did not have knowledge of the player’s sexual misconduct case.”
One thing that is not in dispute: Sidwell, the athletic director, was aware that Padilla had been found responsible for sexual misconduct by the university. And yet the school and athletic department continued to allow him to be featured and promoted in their media. Per the Hulst & Handler report, also in fall 2017, multiple freshman women complained to an RA that Padilla was reaching out to them on social media and “making them uncomfortable.” The report states that the Title IX coordinator at the time, who is no longer with the school, regarded this conduct as “relatively minor,” so did not reach out to the female students or Padilla. (This former Title IX coordinator did not respond to a message from SI.) Soto told the school-hired investigators that he instructed the athletic department’s video director that semester to hold back a video feature on Padilla, because he heard about the complaints from a deputy Title IX official. But he later authorized the feature to be published because he hadn’t heard anything further. Nobody above him did anything to stop the video.
At the end of 2017, Padilla was featured on the official athletics website in a “Dons Spotlight with Manny” video, focusing on how his family and love of dogs “made the person he is today.” When the Houston Dynamo selected Padilla in the second round of the 2018 MLS draft, the USF athletics website and social account highlighted the news. The website post is still up.
Sidwell did not respond to questions from SI about USF’s decision to continue featuring and promoting Padilla.
The Hulst & Handler report adds that three additional women described separate instances of sexual misconduct by yet another men’s soccer player between 2018 and ’19. Only one of the incidents was reported to the school at the time, but the report says the survivor chose not to participate in the Title IX process and did not name the player at the time. Still another player was suspended by the university after being found responsible in an August 2019 hearing for nonconsensual sexual intercourse. That same month, Jess Varga, USF’s Title IX coordinator, met with the team after a number of RAs had also conveyed concerns they heard from freshman women about some players’ conduct. McNelis, a junior midfielder on the team at the time, says he remembers Varga discussing the team’s perception on campus with the group.
“It was a pretty somber episode,” McNelis says. “And what was worrying, too, was that there was kind of a pushback that these reports were legitimate.”
The soccer team had just hired a new coach, Leonard Griffin, and McNelis recalls his trying to get the team to take Varga’s message seriously. But the pushback came from a handful of team leaders, including one whom McNelis remembers saying that the team’s critics were jealous of its privileged standing on campus and were using allegations to knock the team down. McNelis says Varga never followed up with the team again after the brief meeting. (The USF spokesperson said the meeting was “received well” and “taken seriously” by coaches and players.)
McNelis, who left the team after the 2019 season, felt a responsibility last summer to support the online campaign and speak out about what he experienced: a team culture in which he says teammates boasted about sexual conquests, particularly if two players had slept with the same woman, and misogynistic and anti-LGBTQ slurs were commonplace—the latter of which created personal stress as he grappled with his own sexuality. He detailed that last July in a letter he sent to USF’s president, Fitzgerald, and other top school officials, a version of which he also posted on his blog.
It was around this same time that Padilla finally faced meaningful repercussions. He was originally mentioned by name in Midence’s Change.org petition and, after confirming the account with USF, his midlevel professional team, New Mexico United, suspended him for two games—more time than he missed at USF—and ultimately released him.
Today, McNelis thinks back to the university’s core value of cura personalis, care for the whole person. “It begs the question,” McNelis says. “Who's getting cura personalis, and who isn't?
When the school-commissioned Hulst & Handler report was released in January 2021, it was met with disappointment by many past and present members of the USF community. One former student spoke to investigators about two soccer players she says were suspended for nonconsensually filming women during sex back in 2003. Despite its apparent relevance, her account, which fell outside the 10-year period from 2010 to ’20 that Hulst & Handler reviewed, was left out of the report. USF says the university “investigated the incident at the time and has those records,” and that it was Hulst & Handler that “determined the scope” of their investigation.
Others, like Casciano and the marketing employee who recounted flagging concerns about Padilla’s involvement in a school consent campaign, did not feel as though aspects of their testimonies were accurately reflected. Hulst & Handler assert that they “accurately represented” the information reported to them by survivors and witnesses.
The marketing employee says administrators are “still just refusing to take any kind of responsibility. It’s time to be a little bit more direct to call them out. This is not O.K.”
There has been some progress over the last year. In conjunction with the release of the report, USF announced additional measures such as the hiring of a new deputy Title IX coordinator, which was done in April; the planned addition of a sexual violence resource advocate; and a review of the school’s Title IX program planned for this fall. The online campaign also grew into an independent organization called “It’s On USF,” led in part by Midence, dedicated to pushing the university toward reform.
When the school announced a town hall over Zoom in March on the Hulst & Handler report, the It’s On USF group mobilized. They held sessions with students and alumni to prepare, and, during the two-hour event, McNelis questioned the investigators’ ability to make such broad conclusions about a 10-year period, when they talked to only 15 soccer players, and the 90 total people interviewed represent only a fraction of the USF community. Orio, the vice provost, responded to him that the report was “just a piece” and doesn’t mean that “things are great,” according to an audio recording shared with SI by another participant in the town hall.
Athletic director Joan McDermott also cited during the town hall how the men’s soccer coach, Griffin, immediately began to instill a culture of high expectations for his players when he was hired in 2019. While McDermott told students that Griffin dismantled the soccer house soon after being hired, the school confirmed to SI that it was not until July 2020, after the campaign launched by USF alums, that Griffin was instructed to do so. Two months after the town hall, Griffin left USF to become the coach at Grand Canyon University. (Griffin did not respond to SI’s attempts to contact him.)
Sidwell, the longtime athletic director, had left two years earlier to take a plum job at a far bigger institution, albeit one with its own troubled past. He now serves as a deputy athletic director at Penn State.
Fitzgerald, the USF president, did not speak at the town hall, opting instead to send a joint letter with Board of Trustees chairman John F. Nicolai following the release of the report through the USF student portal. In a statement to SI, USF said Fitzgerald “communicates regularly with the university community through email messaging, town halls, and university convocations,” in addition to meeting with student leaders.
The university’s response has added to the disillusionment felt by those who advocated for serious change. One survivor says she stopped reading the report halfway through, as she wasn’t “emotionally prepared” to keep reading a document she felt balked at all responsibility. Ashley had a similar experience, skimming through the report after its release. So many women told the school what was happening, what is happening, and she still feels like no one took them seriously. “These aren’t just rumors,” she says. “I just hope the soccer team got a wakeup call with everything that happened.”
With her assault overshadowing almost her entire college career, Ashley has finally begun to heal. It’s been a little over a year since she and other women shared their stories. Her panic attacks are gone, with the help of a doctor and daily journaling. Ashley even connected with two other survivors and formed a mini support group, but says she is done talking about everything for now. The last year has been intense, and, although it forced her to process what happened, she is ready to start fresh in a new city. “I’m just excited,” a feeling she hasn’t had in years, Ashley says.
She can’t help but think back sometimes on USF’s stated values, on cura personalis. Ashley graduated with no faith in a university dedicated to the greater good. But she also left knowing that a group of students and alumni had done the work to expose the soccer team’s behavior, upholding the values that led them to the university to begin with. “Everyone at school knows,” she says. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
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