Petra Martin Alleges Rutgers Termination Based On Gender Bias

Former Rutgers University swimming & diving coach Petra Martin says her termination from her job had to do with implicit gender bias.

Martin spoke to SwimSwam this week, saying the school didn’t follow traditional protocols or properly investigate complaints about her coaching before asking for her resignation. She says her sudden ouster from the program caught her by surprise in the fall of 2017.

“I really hadn’t heard anything until the week I was let go,” Martin said. “It came as kind of a shock.”

The school officially termed it a resignation, saying in its official statement that Martin and the athletic director “mutually agreed that it was in the best interest of the program for the coach to resign.” In the same statement, the school noted complaints by two swim team members, but said an investigation into the matter “did not reveal any violation of university policy.” Swimmers, though, spoke anonymously to NJ.com, alleging that Martin was verbally abusive and had “shamed athletes over their weight,” among other things.

At the time, Martin denied the allegations.

“I have been advised not to comment, other than to say I am terribly troubled by the accusations… because they are not true,” Martin told NJ.com. “I have always had the best interests of my athletes at heart, and I wish all of them well moving forward,”

Martin and her attorney say they discovered later that the complaints had come to the attention of the athletic department on November 10th. Martin was informed of the complaints on November 14th, and was asked to resign on November 16th, a timeline they say wouldn’t allow the school to follow proper protocols and conduct a thorough enough investigation into the allegations.

“I hadn’t heard anything until everything went down and I was let go,” Martin said. “That’s what’s kind of puzzling: why they didn’t follow the procedures to look into things the way that they should and the way that universities do.”

Gender Bias Allegation

Martin has connected with lawyer Thomas Newkirk, whose firm has experience in dealing with employment and discrimination law. Martin and Newkirk say that her firing had to do with implicit gender bias: how complaints against female coaches are seen and treated differently than complaints against male coaches.

“We’ve found across the country that female coaches are more often blamed for complaints without any facts or substances to back them up,” Newkirk said. “We do that because of implicitly-driven gender biases and stereotypes. That’s one reason why [Martin] was dumped so quickly.

“Implicit gender bias doesn’t mean everybody’s a sexist,” Newkirk added. “It means that in athletics… we still view it as a man’s job. If we really look into our hearts, we all should understand this. There’s a consequence to this. The consequence is that the female in a man’s role is going to be judged a little more harshly by everyone – not only by athletic departments, but by student-athletes, their parents, alums and fans.”

Martin says the complaints against her weren’t about specific behavior but were “feelings-based,” something Newkirk says is common in complaints against female coaches.

“A lot of it was feelings-based stuff, and I think that’s part of the problem, especially when we’re talking about gender bias,” Martin said.

“What happens with a female coach is, you come in and express an emotion,” Newkirk said of complaints. “We take the emotional label of ‘she made me feel bad’, ‘she was abusive to me’, ‘she was bullying me’, and we assign that credibility where there are no facts to support the label.”

“Go examine the actual allegations of the student, and you will find that there is no factual basis for the label. And if you do find something that the coach did, that technically is the factual basis for the label, you’ll find that men are doing exactly the same thing. The double standard will become apparent from examining the facts.” Newkirk says he knows of at least seventy coaches across the country who have had their careers harmed by this phenomenon.

We reached out to Rutgers for comment about the allegation that gender bias played a role in Martin’s termination. A spokesperson merely said “We do not comment on legal or litigation matters.”

Newkirk says Martin isn’t currently seeking a legal remedy against Rutgers, but is communicating with the school in an effort to clear her name of any abuse allegations and to educate the school on the gender bias she says played a part in her termination. But Newkirk did tell NJ.com that “if we’re unable to get Rutgers to come back to the table in a positive way, which is still our effort, we will, of course, have to pursue legal action” to make the school pay out money Martin says she’s owed on her contract, which had about three years remaining.

Specific Behaviors

The broad concept of gender bias can be nebulous and hard to illustrate. We asked Newkirk and Martin for examples of specific behaviors they say would be treated differently in a male coach compared to a female one.

Newkirk pointed to a few key topics and behaviors he says illustrate this phenomenon.

“There are lots of things women do that men do that there’s a slightly higher standard,” he said. “If Petra yells across the pool, is she viewed a little harsher, a little more negative?

“If a student-athlete sees a counselor – for a hundred reasons, because she’s upset or misses her home, there are lots of kids who see counselors – the female coach is blamed for the fact that they’re seeing a counselor.”

Newkirk also pointed to food as a big topic. If an athlete feels a female coach is trying to deny them food or talking about their fitness, they’re more likely to blame a female coach for creating body-image issues, Newkirk says. He also says female coaches have their communication abilities criticized more often.

Martin pointed to progress within the program in academics, team culture and athletic performance during her two-and-a-half-year tenure as evidence that her coaching wasn’t the issue it’s been made out to be.

“We were actually having a great year,” Martin said of the fall before her ousting. She says that when she took over the team, it carried a 3.28 Team GPA, and by spring of 2017, that number was up to 3.46, tied for 4th in the Big Ten. The team had risen steadily in the Big Ten over her two years, and she says the program was coming off of a successful U.S. Open showing at the end of the summer of 2017.

“Things were clicking well,” Martin said, noting that the team had gone through a series of team-building exercises to improve different skills and open up communication. “It was a great experience. The team had really positive feedback about it.

“I don’t think that you do all those things and you have all those experiences if there’s something so terribly wrong,” Martin said.

As for her future, Martin plans to return to the NCAA.

“I am certainly looking forward to the next step and to getting back to college coaching,” Martin said. “I’m excited to mentor and support all the future generations of student-athletes that I will have an opportunity to work with. I am also looking forward to help guide, empower and positively influence all the women and men coaches in our swimming and diving community and help grow our sport as a whole on many different levels.”

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Nope
4 years ago

It’s weird but all the female coaches in the NCAA that are successful (and don’t do anything stupid/ill advised) don’t seem to be fired.

Apso
Reply to  Nope
4 years ago

It’s weird but all the other females in society that dress right/act right (and don’t ask to be raped) don’t seem to be raped.

It’s weird but all the other African Americans who comply with police orders (and don’t do anything stupid like living while black) don’t seem to be shot.

It’s weird but all the other school children that are successful (and don’t do anything stupid/ill advised) don’t seem to get shot up.

Yeah, the logic sounds pretty ignorant to me, too.

APSO-IS-LOGIC-NOT
Reply to  Apso
4 years ago

Yeah not sure how any of your comparisons are relatable to the above comment. If you are a coach and you are not successful, or if you do something stupid (as many coaches do…not this one in particular) you run the risk of being fired. Comparing it to kids being shot up at a school or for “living while black” sounds like you may be pretty ignorant yourself.

Lane 0
4 years ago

I’m happy the swimmers have a coach that they’re comfortable with now; that is something they deserve as student-athletes. Having talked with swimmers, they were afraid to display any kind of emotion around Petra.
“Go examine the actual allegations of the student, and you will find that there is no factual basis for the label. And if you do find something that the coach did, that technically is the factual basis for the label, you’ll find that men are doing exactly the same thing.”
So, what you’re saying is that Petra wasn’t abusive. But if she was, it’s OK because men do it. I understand this a problem across all college sports. But that’s all the more reason… Read more »

See Emily Play
Reply to  Lane 0
4 years ago

@Lane 0: Your comment is not only an outright lie, it’s personally offensive. Petra’s main goal, in addition to fast swimming of course, was to create a culture of openness, respect, honest and constructive communication, and personal responsibility to oneself and the team. not everyone likes being responsible, or being talked to honestly, though. Perhaps the swimmers you claim to have spoken to were some of them.

As for the offensive part, I’m an adult woman. Do you think I need anyone’s permission to voice my feelings (or my thoughts, for that matter?). Are we female SA’s some kind of delicate snowflake that needs protection for our sensitive lady-feelings? No, what we need is guidance on learning the important… Read more »

Swam Swum
Reply to  See Emily Play
4 years ago

If this “guidance” that she was teaching us were things such as body shaming, neglect for those with mental illnesses, and basically breaking women down, then sure I guess. I swam with Rutgers as well, and this woman only knew how to lead with fear. She was a very knowledgeable coach, but when it came to respecting everyone on the team, even those who weren’t fast enough to be her favorite, it wasn’t there. It was sad for me to see some of the strongest girls I know be broken down by this women just because they weren’t up to her standards; she wouldn’t even work with them to bring them up to her standards, she just left them in… Read more »

Mark
Reply to  Swam Swum
4 years ago

Your post – and its utter and complete absence of any factual or objective descriptions of behavior – exemplifies the very point made in the article above: “We take the emotional label of ‘she made me feel bad’, ‘she was abusive to me’, ‘she was bullying me’, and we assign that credibility where there are no facts to support the label.”

SwimSwammer
Reply to  See Emily Play
4 years ago

Kudos on continuing to victim blame by using a victims name in your user name… Good god. If your going to stand up for this woman who had no business being at Rutgers go ahead, but do not continue to out a woman who had to endure pain you could never even imagine. Absolutely disgusting. We all sat on the pool deck that day Petra outted her at Yale after this woman confided In her that she was experiencing extreme distress and reached out to her to include her in the process of seaking help. Yet Petra made the choice to trigger her to a point of no return and to ignore her cries for help. She was a negligent… Read more »

WakyMak
Reply to  Lane 0
4 years ago

You realize you just confirmed the basis of their argument, right? That, if true, the girls that complained about her had their complaints based entirely on “whether Mommy was warm and fuzzy enough.” I wonder: when was the last time someone asked if Mike Bottom was warm and fuzzy. Or Dave Durden? Maybe Marsh or Reese?

Skeptical
4 years ago

This article reads a bit like an advertisement for Thomas Newkirk.

Benedict Arnold Schwarzenegger
Reply to  Skeptical
4 years ago

Why, because Rutgers wouldn’t respond? Do you get how journalism works? Do you expect SwimSwam to get a dissenting opinion into the article via magic and mind-reading, given Rutgers wouldn’t give it to them by natural means?

Skeptical
Reply to  Benedict Arnold Schwarzenegger
4 years ago

Because of the depth the article goes into describing Newkirk’s legal theory for this case. It just strikes me as odd to give Newkirk so much publicity to describe a legal theory without mentioning anything specific about its applicability to Martin’s claim. It also strikes me as odd that a swim blog would go into so much detail about what gender bias is, and allow Newkirk to describe the concept instead of a more impartial source. The swimming news story could have ended before the “Gender Bias Allegation” subheading. This article will surely help Thomas Newkirk to get business should any of the “seventy coaches across the country who have had their careers harmed by this phenomenon” decide to seek… Read more »

SwimObserver
Reply to  Skeptical
4 years ago

So you think that less information is better journalism? Or is that only because you disagree with coach Martin and her attorney, you think there should’ve been less perspective from them?

SMH. Journalism != only the stuff that you like or agree with.

Skeptical
Reply to  SwimObserver
4 years ago

I don’t disagree or agree with Coach Martin and her attorney, there are not enough public facts to really form an opinion. I also don’t think that less information is better journalism. All I’m suggesting is this article goes out of its way to promote Newkirk. My comment has nothing to do with Rutgers or Coach Martin.

Former Swimmer
4 years ago

This is ridiculous, she’s turning a gender issue into her own agenda. I think she’s delusional. There are plenty of great coaches, both male and female, that lead their teams to great victories and achievements without allegations of abuse. Just because she was “cleared” of such allegations, it does not mean that it did not happen. It would take the complaints of more than a handful of swimmers for these allegations to come about. Sure, maybe the way she was treated was not fair with respect to other male coaches, but that surely does not excuse her abusive behavior and she most certainly does not deserve a job anywhere near those girls or near a pool for that matter.

WakyMak
Reply to  Former Swimmer
4 years ago

Actually, it wouldn’t take more than a small handful of noisy, maliciously motivated individuals to bring down the career of a coach. Seen it happen many times before. And, if she was cleared….twice…..through two objective investigations, then bad behavior was deemed not to have happened. Your insistence that she was abusive is actually explained quite cleanly by this idea of gender bias.

Former Swimmer
Reply to  WakyMak
4 years ago

It’s not gender bias, I was actually one of her swimmers and I know the verbal abuse she was capable of. She treated me awfully from the get go. She was great to the ones she favorited, but to the ones she did not like, it was really awful. She said some very harsh words and did some pretty bad things to me and a few others. I stand by my statement, she does not deserve a job anywhere near the pool.

See Emily Play
Reply to  Former Swimmer
4 years ago

I was one of her former swimmers, too, and never saw Petra even come close to being mean, abusive, or a bully. She’s tough, and asked a lot of us, but any good coach would do that. She was also fun and creative and took the time to get to know us as individuals. I wish she was still with us, because we were on track to having good things happen. (Tornado of success!)

There were a small group of unhappy swimmers who didn’t like the changes she brought to the team and undermined her efforts whenever they could. I guess you’re one of them, from what you say.

Former D1 top 20 woman swim coach
Reply to  Former Swimmer
4 years ago

To ” former swimmer”, please name the “plenty” of great women swim coaches, especially in division 1 College? D1 is arguably the highest level, other than Olympic staff, for a coach to reach. I personally was a division 1 multiple All American and Olympic trials qualifying swimmer myself, lots of assistant coaching experience before I got a head job at the division 1 level, a master’s degree in exercise science, top 20 success multiple years at the D1 level. My point is I was well qualified to be a division 1 head coach and had worked my ass off to get there. But I was driven out of coaching because of the treatment by my fellow male coaches who were… Read more »

marklewis

You achieved the highest levels in coaching. When you got there, what was waiting for you was rudeness and harassment by your fellow coaches, that were mostly all male. “Horriific experiences” as you call them.

Sometimes you meet the worst people at the elite levels. They’re self-centered and they will “try to undermine” your success.

Breaststrokesthebeststroke
4 years ago

I’d be interested to hear Rutgers side of this whole situation too, considering that this article and the NJ.com one were both pretty one-sided. I find it unlikely that she was let go without cause; if I remember correctly in the article that was released last year, the AD had met with the team for quite some time before deciding to separate her from the program. With these kind of things you can’t truly support one side or the other without really knowing what happened on that pool deck.

Admin
Reply to  Breaststrokesthebeststroke
4 years ago

Nobody can make Rutgers talk. We tried, and they declined.

Breaststrokesthebeststroke
Reply to  Braden Keith
4 years ago

And I’m not blaming you guys at all, I know they won’t comment on the situation. I’m just saying that the people painting Martin out as a victim here should keep in mind there’s two sides to every story.

WakyMak
Reply to  Breaststrokesthebeststroke
4 years ago

Rutgers also said in that article that she was cleared of bad behavior through two separate investigations.

dmswim
4 years ago

I don’t know enough of the facts to form an opinion on the gender discrimination issue, but I will note that Rutgers was likely particularly sensitive to abuse allegations after the extensive media coverage of Mike Rice. If they didn’t follow protocols and rushed the process, it might have been because they didn’t want more bad press about coaching abuse. Just another factor to consider.

Apso
Reply to  dmswim
4 years ago

Steve, spot on. Gender bias is endemic in the corporate world. Athletics is no different, likely just as bad. Research exists to prove this.

Reference:http://www.catalyst.org/knowledge/doublebind-infographic-btn

SwimObserver
Reply to  Apso
4 years ago

Wouldn’t research conducted by an organization whose stated mission is advocacy for women be, by definition, susceptible to “gender bias”?

Dan
Reply to  dmswim
4 years ago

I totally agree that there is gender bias in the corporate world. My wife is an executive and experiences it a great deal. I also agree that there is gender bias in the world of swimming. I had the misfortune of working for someone who had extreme contempt for female coaches and could never picture a female coach working with elite senior level athletes, it was disgusting and toxic place to work.

I would actually go a step further and a say that gender bias is a BIG problem in swimming, corporate world, and most areas of life. The only thing I take issue with is the IMPLICIT bias idea, which is absolute garbage.

Dan
4 years ago

Implicit bias is a fairly controversial concept, lots of debate on whether or not it’s a valid idea. Studies by advocates of the idea showed that 90-95% of people were prejudiced. This was a gold mine for people who looking to win the oppression Olympics! Almost the entire population was prejudiced and there was nothing they could do to prove otherwise because implicit bias is so subconscious. Got to hand it to these folks, it’s kind of diabolical.

Apso
4 years ago

Great article on a much needed topic. Absolutely horrible what happened to Coach Martin and the many women like her suffering from bias and double standards of this sort.

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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