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A Predatory Culture, a Viral Reckoning—and Now What?

The University of San Francisco men’s soccer team regularly sends players to the pros, but it has become better known on campus for the countless accusations of sexual assault and harassment against its members.

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.”

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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 USF campus is located in downtown San Francisco, beside Golden Gate Park.

The USF campus is located in downtown San Francisco, beside Golden Gate Park.

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.”

Fitzgerald, the USF president, has come under fire for his comments on sexual assault—and what his critics say has been a lack of action in addressing problems on campus. 

Fitzgerald, the USF president, has come under fire for his comments on sexual assault—and what his critics say has been a lack of action in addressing problems on campus. 

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.

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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.