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Former Women’s Gymnastics Coach Files Lawsuit Against Penn State Over Handling Of Abuse Allegations

Former Penn State women’s gymnastics head coach Jeff Thompson has filed a lawsuit against the university following the termination of his contract in February 2017.

Thompson, alongside his wife and associate head coach Rachelle Thompson, was accused by former gymnasts and an assistant coach of creating a hostile team environment. The Thompsons allegedly pressured athletes to compete through injuries, publicly ridiculed their weight, and used bullying tactics.

Rachelle Thompson resigned in June 2016 prior to her husband’s final season with the team.

Jeff Thompson’s lawsuit against Penn State is for defamation, false light, and breach of contract. He is seeking $100,000 in damages, as well as the remaining compensation from the final 16 months of his contract that would have ended in June 2018. Thompson earned an annual salary of $128,496 as head coach of the women’s gymnastics team.

The lawsuit cites issues between the Thompsons, who began coaching at Penn State in 2010, and former assistant coach Samantha Brown as the start of the abuse allegations. Brown’s contract was terminated in January 2016 after a year-and-a-half with the program. The suit claims Brown made “unsubstantiated and untruthful assertions regarding abuse by the Thompsons” toward the end of and following her employment with the team.

The athletic department conducted a review in response to Brown’s claims prior to her termination, but Thompson says the lack of action from the university — including its refusal to send a cease-and-desist letter to Brown in response to her post-termination public comments — led to a slew of reports detailing abuse within the women’s gymnastics program.

Thompson alleges that various statements provided by Penn State to the media in response to abuse allegations suggested that the athletes’ claims may have been true. The exception shown in the lawsuit was a comment provided to People Magazine by the athletic department that states “no instances of abuse were identified.”

“The statements as published by Penn State were made with actual malice and/or with disregard for the truth and made no effort to preserve or protect the reputation of Coach Thompson,” the lawsuit reads.

Thompson claims that Penn State mandated that he provided no comments to the media and failed “its duty” to defend him. 

Thompson was informed in his year-end review that the Office of Ethics and Compliance found “nothing that led to concern regarding ethics or integrity,” according to the suit. Deputy Director of Athletics Phil Esten, however, noted frequently that Thompson would be viewed “under a microscope.” Thompson was also informed swearing would not be tolerated and that he was not to yell or use sarcasm around the team. Athletic Director Sandy Barbour told Thompson to keep the team happy and not worry about winning.

The lawsuit says Thompson followed those orders and didn’t make “inappropriate comments or statements, which could be misconstrued or mischaracterized.” During that season, he taped practices on his iPad to protect himself against allegations. It also claims Esten told the coach days before his firing that he was doing a great job.

On February 23, 2017, with just three meets left before the Big Ten Championships, Thompson was fired for unspecified comments made to his two assistant coaches Josh Nilson and Kera Molinaro in “his office or public areas with no one else around,” which were reported to the athletic department by Molinaro.

The lawsuit states that Penn State did not have “cause” for termination as defined in Thompson’s contract, and that the university’s timing and statement on the firing did nothing to refute the link between abuse allegations and his dismissal.

Thompson has not been able to find another job as a college head coach or assistant coach, and has not been able to obtain an interview, which the lawsuit claims is a direct result of Penn State’s actions.

Per Penn State policy, the university does not provide comment on pending litigation.

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About the Author

Steve Connelly

Unfortunately, former editor Steve Connelly has graduated. Where is he now? He might be doing something related to that PR degree he got in 2019. Maybe he finally opened that sports bar named after one of his photos, the Blurry Zamboni. Or he might just be eating chicken tenders and couch surfing. Anything’s possible. If you really want to know, follow him on Twitter @slc2o.

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