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.
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.