Today, three former student-athletes filed a class action lawsuit against the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), the NCAA Board of Governors, and John Rembao, the former track and cross-country coach at the University of Arizona, University of Texas-Austin and other NCAA universities. The complaint alleges that the NCAA put student-athletes at all NCAA member schools in harm’s way by failing to prohibit sexual abuse, sexual harassment, or sexual contact between coaches and student-athletes, and by permitting coaches accused of sexual abuse to move unfettered between NCAA schools. The lawsuit seeks immediate adoption of clear and best practices around coach-student relationships, and compensation for those who were subjected to abuse as a result of the NCAA’s failures to employ such practices.
The lawsuit, filed by the law firms Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein and Fegan Scott in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, alleges that the NCAA facilitated a national epidemic by perpetuating a cycle of sexual abuse—like that seen in the Catholic Church—because it chose not to implement rules or impose any sanctions that would require schools to take steps to prevent and report abuse by coaches and deter perpetrators.
Coach Rembao’s pattern of predatory behavior is just one example of a long line of coaches who have sexually abused athletes. The complaint alleges that Rembao systematically groomed the three women in full view of college officials, who were made aware of the abuse and failed to implement and enforce rules prohibiting sexual relations and abuse by athletic department personnel. In fact, given the lack of NCAA rules mandating reporting, Coach Rembao was permitted to move between NCAA schools and continue the harassment of his victims.
“Rembao used textbook maneuvers to manipulate these young athletes into getting what he wanted,” said FeganScott founding partner and managing member Beth Fegan. “Make no mistake, this was a gross violation of his power over these student-athletes, and Rembao continually used the coach-athlete dynamic to his advantage—threatening to strip them of their scholarships and insisting on ‘closed-door’ meetings—behavior that was, in effect, sanctioned by the NCAA because of its lack of regulations to protect student-athletes from such misconduct.”
The lawsuit alleges that the NCAA’s failure to prohibit sexual abuse contributed to threatening environments at member institutions. Allegations against Rembao include strict regulation of the women’s nutrition—to the point of incurring eating disorders—verbal abuse and public shaming. The suit also notes allegations of sexual assault, which included meetings in Rembao’s office where he would rub his erection on an entrapped student-athlete, instances of digital penetration and genital inspection, and one case where Rembao entered a plaintiff’s dorm room while she slept, touching her inappropriately and kissing her legs.
“The most appalling part about this case is that one of the plaintiffs filed an official complaint at UT-Austin, and officials ruled that Rembao’s actions, like licking her neck, or coming into her room and pulling back her sheets while she slept, were not ‘sexual in nature,’” said Fegan. “This is exactly the kind of abominable decision that could have been avoided, had the NCAA mandated reporting to an NCAA ombudsman and independent investigation. Without NCAA rules prohibiting sexual contact between coaches and student-athletes, we see an un-regulated member institution shamefully attempt to undercut the agency of the victim while allowing the perpetrator to move unchecked among schools. And Rembao is certainly not the only predator that has taken advantage of NCAA’s lax rules.”
The suit attempts to hold NCAA officials accountable for failing to foster a safe environment and for not imposing appropriate sanctions on schools and coaches after learning of sexually inappropriate behavior. The 115-page document names a number of instances of sexual assault and harassment perpetuated over a period of eight years.
“The magnitude of this case is truly staggering,” said Fegan. “What we’re trying to do is break the isolation created by abusive coaches in the hopes of protecting other athletes. We know that without NCAA controls, perpetrators move among schools without recrimination – this is a system we need to radically rebuild to ensure student athletes have the full support and resources of independent NCAA officials at their disposal.”
The suit seeks retribution for class members’ significant physical and emotional distress and aims to hold the governing collegiate body accountable for failing in its duty to keep student-athletes safe. It also seeks injunctive relief centering on the implementation of significant and meaningful reforms including outside oversight to ensure adherence to the highest and strictest standards of behavior by the faculty of schools and their coaches and the guaranteed safety of student athletes going forward.
“Because the NCAA allows coaches who are known predators to continue to work at its member institutions, we feel the urgency to shine a light on the NCAA’s willful ignorance and establish appropriate safeguards,” said Lieff Cabraser partner Annika K. Martin, who co-represents the plaintiffs in the suit. “These former student-athletes are taking a stand in the face of trauma, and it’s our goal to eradicate any semblance of power-based sexual coercion happening at institutions to make sure universities are a safe place for all.”
About Lieff Cabraser
Lieff Cabraser represents individuals nationwide in sexual abuse lawsuits against their physicians, teachers, and clergy as well as other abusers, including the USC sexual abuse litigation filed on behalf of nearly 18,000 women abused by University gynecologist George Tyndall, where Lieff Cabraser partner Annika K. Martin serves as co-lead class counsel whose efforts led to a historic settlement for victims of $215 million and sweeping institutional reforms requiring USC to make changes to ensure such sexual abuse never happens again on campus.
FeganScott is a national class-action law firm dedicated to helping victims of sexual abuse, discrimination and consumer fraud. The firm is championed by acclaimed veteran, class-action attorneys who have successfully recovered $1 billion for victims nationwide. FeganScott is committed to pursuing successful outcomes with integrity and excellence while holding the responsible parties accountable.