Two-time Olympian Janelle Atkinson is suing Stony Brook University, claiming the school didn’t thoroughly investigate accusations of abuse the way they would for male coaches.
Atkinson was hired as the head coach of Stony Brook’s revived swimming & diving program for the 2017-2018 season. Prior to that, the program had been on competitive hiatus since 2013 due to pool maintenance renovations. In January of 2018 (in the midst of that first season since reinstatement), the school dismissed Atkinson and assistant coach Jordan Bowen, following allegations of emotional abuse by team members.
Now, Atkinson claims that the school overreacted to the complaints, according to the New York Post. Atkinson says the school terminated her without properly investigating the complaints, which she calls “demonstratably false.” Atkinson also says that male coaches in similar situations have gotten support from the school.
The case is remarkably similar to that of former Rutgers head coach Petra Martin, who was fired suddenly in the fall of 2017 amidst allegations of verbal abuse towards athletes. Martin also pointed to implicit gender bias as a reason she said she was treated differently than male coaches dealing with the same complaints. Martin and her attorney eventually agreed to a $725,000 settlement that included a public statement from the school clearing her of the bullying allegations.
Thomas Newkirk was the lawyer who represented Martin in that dispute, and he is also representing Atkinson. Newkirk says his firm has identified 150 female coaches across the country who he says have been harmed in a similar way.
“Coach Atkinson brought this claim with the goal of educating universities and other coaches about a national crisis affecting female coaches,” Newkirk said. “Gender bias is causing an increasing number of unfounded student-athlete complaints against female coaches, who are then improperly investigated, and often fired, for those complaints.
“Our primary objective is always to help universities recognize and eliminate gender bias in the way they process these student-athlete complaints,” Newkirk said. “When that doesn’t work, however, a lawsuit is the only way to make a difference”
We’ve reached out to Stony Brook for comment, but have not yet received a response.