In December 2019, University of California freshman swimmer Danielle Carter met with Golden Bears head coach Teri McKeever for the final time after a series of heated meetings with the coach and other athletic department employees in which Carter complained that McKeever had routinely bullied her. The bullying, the swimmer said, led to her walking into her dorm bathroom days earlier with the intent of committing suicide.
At an earlier meeting with Carter and her parents, Scott and Darla, McKeever said, according to Darla, “‘I’m not dealing with this piece of (expletive) for three years,’ and she pointed right at Dani.”
This final meeting between Carter and McKeever was also attended by Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, McKeever’s close friend and who as the executive senior associate athletic director had direct supervision over the Cal women’s swimming program at the time.
Upset by how McKeever had treated her daughter and the university’s handling of the case which would result in Danielle Carter transferring to UC Santa Barbara, Darla Carter said she also called Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton about McKeever.
“I did get him on the phone,” Darla Carter said. “I requested a meeting to talk about what was going on with Danielle and how she was being treated by Teri.
“Jim told me he does not meet with parents or athletes that have not graduated from their program.”
Just weeks after the meeting described in detail by Danielle Carter that included Simon-O’Neill, and Darla Carter’s call, Knowlton on Jan. 7, 2020, signed off on a five-year contract extension for McKeever potentially worth nearly $1.5 million and cementing her position as the nation’s highest-paid female college swim coach.
It wasn’t the first time a complaint filed or presented to Cal officials detailing allegations of McKeever’s bullying was followed by pay raises and increases in other compensation for the coach.
In a Jan. 13, 2010 letter to then-University of California chancellor Robert Joseph Birgeneau, Golden Bears swimmer Jenna Rais alleged she had been verbally abused and bullied by women’s team head coach Teri McKeever.
University administration and athletic department officials including Knowlton, Simon-O’Neill and Sandy Barbour, Cal’s athletic director from 2004 to 2014, have received more than 30 complaints from Cal swimmers or their parents alleging bullying behavior by McKeever over the 12 years following Rais’ letter. One of those complaints in 2018 prompted a university official to acknowledge she would review the school’s bullying, sexual violence and sexual harassment and non-discrimination policies with the coach, according to interviews, university documents and emails obtained by the Southern California News Group.
Despite the repeated complaints, Cal has paid McKeever, 60, just under $3 million in total compensation since 2010 and given her eight raises in her base pay between 2010 and 2019, according to her contract and other university financial records. McKeever’s annual base salary has increased by more than 77% since 2010.
The base salary raises and increased compensation for McKeever in light of the steady stream of complaints, current and former swimmers and their parents said, shows that Knowlton, Simon-O’Neill and other Cal administrators did not listen to them and that the university has prioritized athletic success over athlete well being.
“It makes me kind of sick to my stomach actually,” Chenoa Devine, a former Cal distance standout, said when informed of McKeever’s pay raises. “I mean that Cal didn’t listen to complaints from all those swimmers and parents and then turned around and gave her pay raises, that is pretty gross to me.”
“We were making complaints at that time,” said Chloe Clark, a former Golden Bears swimmer, who also complained to Simon-O’Neill about McKeever’s alleged bullying in the fall of 2019. “So, no I don’t think the school listened to us.”
“‘Teri is producing Olympians, she’s an Olympic coach. There’s really nothing more I can do for you,’” Clark recalled Simon-O’Neill telling her during the 2019 meeting.
Cal placed McKeever, who has guided the Golden Bears to four NCAA team titles, on paid administrative leave on May 25 and commissioned an investigation by a Los Angeles law firm into allegations a day after SCNG reported that the coach has routinely bullied athletes throughout her 29-year career at Berkeley.
To date 36 current or former Cal swimmers and divers, 17 parents, a former member of the Golden Bears’ men’s swimming and diving squad, two former coaches and two former Cal athletic department employees have told SCNG that McKeever, the only woman to serve as head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team, routinely bullied swimmers, often in deeply personal terms, or used embarrassing or traumatic experiences from their past against them, used racial epithets, body-shamed and pressured athletes to compete or train while injured or dealing with chronic illnesses or eating disorders, even accusing some women of lying about their conditions despite being provided medical records by them. Swimmers and parents have also alleged that McKeever revealed medical information about athletes to other team members and coaches without their permission in violation of federal, state and university privacy laws and guidelines.
Nine Cal women’s swimmers, six since 2018, have told SCNG they made plans to kill themselves or obsessed about suicide for weeks or months because of what they describe as McKeever’s bullying.
At least two dozen current or former Cal swimmers or their parents have complained about McKeever, either formally or in person, to Cal officials between 2010 and July 2022, according to university documents, emails and interviews.
“They deny, or say this ‘it wasn’t on my watch’ stuff, especially Jim Knowlton,” Scott Carter said referring to Cal.
Thomas Newkirk, McKeever’s attorney, has portrayed his client as the victim of both a double standard in how female and male coaches are viewed and judged, and how female athletes are socialized from a young age to report stress, injuries and frustration differently than male athletes.
Current and former Cal swimmers have described Newkirk’s gender bias argument as condescending, demeaning, desperate and offensive.
Knowlton has served as Cal’s A.D. since May 2018. Simon-O’Neill has been an employee of the Cal athletic department since August 2008 and has been an associate A.D. and the senior women’s administrator since August 2015. McKeever is the godmother to one of Simon-O’Neill’s children, according to published reports and multiple sources.
SCNG submitted a request to interview Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill with a university spokesman this week. In response to the request the university issued this statement: “As you know, there is an investigative process underway. In order to protect the integrity of that process, we will have no comment about any of the related issues for allegations.”
Newkirk said in an interview and in documents sent to Cal chancellor Carol T. Christ and Knowlton that top university officials were not only aware of McKeever’s coaching methods but have rewarded her.
Interviews and financial records support Newkirk’s claim.
University financial records and documents related to McKeever’s contract show that Cal officials repeatedly increased the coach’s compensation even as the complaints to the university of her bullying, and verbal and emotional abuse piled up.
The contract extension approved by Knowlton in January 2020 runs through April 30, 2024. The contract includes an annual salary of $242,500, nearly three times the average salary for a college head swim coach, according to the College Swimming and Diving Coaches of America Association (CSCAA). Under the deal, McKeever could receive up to $55,000 per year in bonuses including $35,000 if the Golden Bears win the NCAA team title. McKeever also receives a $2,000 bonus if a Cal swimmer qualifies for the Olympic or World Championships team, breaks a world or American record or if a Golden Bears athlete or relay wins an NCAA title.
“It’s weird but what Teri’s attorney said, pretty much that’s what’s happened,” Scott Carter said. “Cal knew what (McKeever) was doing and actually rewarded her for that. On the surface that’s mindboggling that that happened.
“You can’t explain it. Nothing makes sense.”
The contract’s list of performance of duties states that McKeever is responsible for the team’s performance “based on the outcome targets agreed upon” with the athletic director and sport supervisor “each year.”
The list of performance duties also includes supervision of staff, performance review, regular meeting attendance, conducting the program with “integrity” and meeting established budget standards, developing relationships “with external stakeholders (donors, sponsors, patrons)” and meeting fundraising responsibilities, adhering to NCAA, Pac-12 and university legislation and policy, following the NCAA infractions procedures, and demonstrating consistent support for student services and community programs.
Nowhere in the contract is student welfare mentioned.
The contract does state that “the primary purpose of the University and its intercollegiate athletics program is educative. Thus, the educative purposes of the University shall have priority in the various provisions of this Contract. Coach’s conduct shall at all times be in a manner consistent with Coach’s positions as an instructor of students.”
The contract also states that McKeever must adhere to university policies regarding discrimination, harassment and Affirmative Action in the workplace; the protection of whistleblowers from retaliation; sexual harassment; and disclosing information from student or staff personnel records.
McKeever can be fired for cause for violating those policies as well as for failing “to properly represent the University and the University athletic programs in private and public forums, including the commission of, participation in, or condoning of any act, situation or occurrence that in University’s judgment, brings Coach or University into public disrepute, embarrassment, contempt, scandal or ridicule.”
Cal under the terms of the contract would owe McKeever no further compensation if she was fired for cause. If the university fired her without cause it would owe her 50% of her annual base salary or $121,250.
The 2020 contract extension not only followed repeated complaints about McKeever to Cal by the Carter and Clark families and others but also an incident at the Minnesota Invitational in December 2019 that was well known within the Golden Bears program and that left several team members traumatized, according to five Cal swimmers.
A Cal swimmer started the 2019-20 season battling an eating disorder that was widely known within the team, the coaching staff and the school’s sports medicine department, according to the athlete and multiple teammates and parents, including the swimmer’s.
McKeever not only ignored the swimmer’s eating disorder, she bullied her on a regular basis, according to the athlete and five other teammates.
“I was battling two huge obstacles and (McKeever) just piled on,” the swimmer said.
McKeever “triggered her into a dark spiral,” said Clark, who was a friend of the swimmer. [This quote has already been lawyered. Appeared in May 24 story.]
During a race at the Minnesota meet, the swimmer was so depleted that 25 yards from the finish she all but stopped swimming and had to be pulled out of the water. The swimmer was taken to the pool’s lifeguard office for medical treatment. There, the swimmer said, McKeever finally acknowledged her illness.
The swimmer later transferred to an SEC school.
“I’m honestly not surprised by any of this because Cal has brushed (complaints about McKeever’s misconduct) under the rug once, so they’re like, ‘Ok, do it again and do it again,” Danielle Carter said. “No one is controlling (McKeever). They do whatever they want because Teri is doing a good job in their eyes, she’s winning all these championships, Pac-12s, NCAAs.
“I’m not shocked because they’re just a very evil group of people, a very evil organization.”
In 2018, McKeever’s base salary was $200,978. A year later she received a raise to $242,500. She also received $49,000 in additional compensation in 2019, $35,000 more than the previous year.
The base salary increase came after a seven-month period in 2018 where officials both in the university’s administration and athletic department were aware of multiple allegations of misconduct against McKeever.
For example, Cal officials received a formal complaint from a Golden Bears swimmer in 2014 about a series of “team-building exercises” during a squad retreat in Marin County in which athletes were pressured to reveal sexual secrets and other information about their personal lives.
The university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination did not respond to the complaint for four years, according to emails and an interview with Abi Speers, a member of the 2013-14 Cal team, who made the complaint.
“My office is notified when other campus partners learn about behavior related to sexual harassment and sexual violence, and other forms of discrimination,” Paula Raffaelli, the OPHD’s senior complaint resolution officer, wrote in an April 17, 2018 email to Speers. “I am writing to you because my office was informed that you may have experienced sexual harassment from your swim coach.”
Speers met with Raffaelli on May 3, according to emails and interviews.
Knowlton, a former West Point hockey player who had previously been the Air Force Academy A.D., formally took over at Cal on May 21.
On July 19, Raffaelli emailed Speers.
“I know it wasn’t easy for you to come forward, and I’m glad that you did,” Raffaelli said. “I’ve assessed the information you provided and discussed with my colleagues. Based on what you’ve reported, I and the Title IX officer will meet with Coach McKeever to share the concerns you’ve raised, review with her the UC Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment as well as the non-discrimination, and bullying policies, and discuss appropriate behavior and boundaries. I’ve also reported the information to Athletics management, who will follow up as well. While I can’t share more details about any management actions in light of employee privacy, I will update you (per my office’s protocol) after I’ve spoken with Coach McKeever.”
It took the OPHD officer another 47 days to report back to Speers that she had met with McKeever and the matter was resolved.
“I’m writing to let you know that I was able to meet with Teri and share your concerns with her,” Raffaelli wrote in a Sept. 4 email to Speers. “I did not share your name, and reviewed the anti-retaliation policy with her. My apologies for the length of time to get back to you, as we had some scheduling delays.
“In any event, we had a productive conversation. We discussed power dynamics, how words and actions can have a profound impact regardless of their intent, and ways to improve on the retreat in the coming years, among other things.
“Because this matter was resolved under our informal, preventative measure procedures, my office now considers this matter closed.”
Six weeks later, Devine, a Pac-12 scorer and NCAA qualifier, met with McKeever on Oct. 16 about whether she would stay in the program, according to emails and interviews. Devine told SCNG that McKeever had bullied her for months to the point where the swimmer considered taking her own life.
“I didn’t want to exist in a world where I had to see Teri every day,” Devine said. “I didn’t want to be alive. I didn’t want to exist.”
“Teri made me feel insane,” Devine continued. “Her office was like this seat of power. She would talk at me without allowing me to get any words in, (she would yell), ‘You’re lying.’
“She made me feel completely insane.”
That same morning, Oct. 16, Pam Devine, Chenoa’s mother, received an email from the Cal Calling Center, part of the university’s fundraising organization, with the subject line “Just a friendly reminder.”
The email was topped by a photo of Oski, the school’s mascot, surrounded by student callers in the call center with the heading “Fulfill your pledge.”
“Just a few months ago, you pledged to make a generous $1000.00 gift to The Teri McKeever Women’s Swimming Scholarship with our student caller and we couldn’t be more grateful,” the email read. “Thank you.
“We haven’t received your payment yet, and because your gift impacts the lives of our students and faculty, we wanted to send you one last request to honor that commitment today.”
Below the email’s text was a prominent blue box with the words “Fulfill Now.”
The email was signed by Gwen Barrett, the call center’s associate director.
Pam Devine did not send Cal any money.
“I was appalled – NO, no more money ever!” she said in an email to SCNG. “First, I never made a pledge to fulfill, and second, at the time I thought, ‘Can I just have any money I have ever given to the program RETURNED to me??’”
During the meeting with Pam’s daughter that day, McKeever told Chenoa Devine “I don’t know what to do with you,” according to Chenoa Devine’s notes from the session.
Nine days later, Devine, one of the top distance swimmers in Cal history, in a meeting with McKeever and Simon-O’Neill said she was taking a medical retirement. She had two years of eligibility remaining.
This week Devine was asked about McKeever receiving a $41,522 raise the following year.
“That’s just kind of (expletive) up to be honest,” she said. “To know how she mistreated us and yet they turn around and give her about a $50,000 raise is just wrong any way you cut it.”
A week before the meeting that included Simon-O’Neil, Devine’s parents received another email from Cal, this time from Knowlton.
In the Oct. 18 email addressed to “Dear Friend of Cal Athletics,” Knowlton mentioned the success of the women’s swimming and rowing programs, the university’s gameday environment, and fundraising strategies.
He also touched on the department’s “Listening Day..”
“Another source of input for our strategic plan will be the results of our Listening Days, which we completed over the summer. We are now reviewing all of the feedback from sports and administrative meetings and we are beginning to create and implement action plans with a focus on areas we identified as challenges. This will drive where we put our resources and where we go as a department.”
Knowlton added in the email “Our objective remains to be exceptional in all that we do and provide an extraordinary experience for our student-athletes – as students, as athletes and in the community – which mirrors the student mission for the entire campus and is a priority for our chancellor.”
Knowlton and Cal’s actions, Devine said, suggest to her that their priorities are elsewhere.
“That’s really just Cal’s attempt in prioritizing the appearance of success at any cost to the athlete,” Devine said. “They don’t care about the athlete’s mental health, they don’t care about their physical health, their well-being.
“They’re just kind of ruthless in this pursuit of this exceptional reputation. It sounds kind of hollow right now.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255, visit the website athttps://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
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