BERKELEY, Calif. - A year-long investigation into the soccer program at one of the nation's most prestigious universities uncovered a history of disturbing claims of abuse from current and former players, who say now is the time to finally break their silence.
For most athletes, playing in college is not a reality. There are more than 400,000 girls in high school who play soccer, according to the NCAA, but the chance of playing at a Division 1 school like Cal is just 2.4%.
And as the university's communications director points out, "this year’s recruiting class for our women’s soccer team was ranked #1 in the country, a sure sign of the program’s quality and excellent reputation."
All the women who spoke to KTVU about their experiences in Cal's soccer program talked about growing up with a love for the sport, and how playing for Cal was in some ways, the pinnacle of that dream.
But dreams turned into nightmares for multiple women who scored one of the coveted spots on Cal's soccer team, when they began playing for the school's long-time coach Neil McGuire.
McGuire has been Cal's head coach since 2007 and, according to the school, has lead the team to 12 NCAA appearances.
His bio on the school's website boasts the names of several well-known players he coached, including professional soccer player Alex Morgan, who is one of the most decorated athletes in Cal's history.
But the players who came to KTVU had a different story to tell. A story about life off the field, in the locker room, at practice, and in what became every aspect of their college careers.
They wanted to talk about their coach and what they called emotional abuse, fat-shaming, bullying, intimidation, and mistreatment. They wanted to talk about Cal’s response when they went to the university's administration for help. And they wanted to talk about what they say is an unspoken problem behind the scenes.
A dozen players who went to Cal over the last ten years spoke on the record and off. KTVU heard from All Americans, scholarship and non-scholarship players, some who played four years, some who quit, one who was cut. All of the players had disturbing stories with similarities and all of them blamed Cal’s head coach Neil McGuire.
Hannah Koski went to Cal on a scholarship in 2013. She describes verbal abuse, conversations that left the team in tears and being punished for standing up to McGuire when she disagreed with him.
"I'm mentally tough and this was the first time I had been broken down," she said.
She ended up quitting after what she described as emotional abuse, because “I was so scared of this man.”
"Everyone asks how physically demanding it is to play in college. It's the mental side thats so much harder," she said.
Olivia Sekany was a goalie for Cal. She describes workouts used as punishment and a focus on her fitness and physique that other players didn't endure. She says she went on multiple crash diets back to back, and over-trained trying to please McGuire, who she says frequently fat-shamed her.
“I was just trying to fix whatever was wrong with me so he would stop coming after me so I could play soccer because that's all I wanted to do," she said.
Sekany is one of several players who participated in a workout in the rain in March 2018 despite McGuire cancelling practice, only to ignite his fury when he found out, she said. After he learned the team had disobeyed him and taken to the field anyways, they were made to run again and do another workout as punishment. Multiple women including Sekany said they ran until they were sick or felt faint.
"I ran until I couldn't feel my arms anymore and then on the last lap I was still running," said Sekany. "And on the last lap that we were doing my vision went black as I crossed the finish line, and I started saying 'I can't see! I can't see!' And then he sent me off with the assistant coach to the training room."
The team referred to the incident as "Raingate" after that.
Renee Thomas says she turned down offers from other universities to come to Berkeley because it was her dream to play for Cal. But she said the environment wasn’t healthy. She says McGuire wasn’t just tough, “It wasn’t an issue of a yeller it was emotional and mental abuse because he treated some girls so poorly they started coming depressed and mentally not stable.”
She ended up getting cut from the team freshman year and has filed a lawsuit. The university denies the allegeations and is fighting the suit. It maintains that her getting cut was justified.
Caroline Clark says she was treated better than her teammates but says watching the toxic environment took its toll saying. "What it boiled down to was any love I had of soccer [McGuire] completely took away and I wasn't happy anymore.”
She was also one of the players who were forced to run during the "Raingate" workout. She remembers the practice as being especially punishing, and their coach especially angry.
She says several of her teammates needed medical attention that day.
"I got super light headed," Clark said. "I was laying on the training table with my feet up to help with the situation. And it was first me, then one more girl came down to put her feet up, then one more girl came down to put her feet up, and by the end of it there was just a row of girls about to pass out. Because he was overworking us so hard and no one understood why."
Clark eventually quit the team and gave up her scholarship.
Former Cal player Indigo Gibson was a starter and an All-American athelete from 2014 to 2018. She did not want to appear on camera, writing in a letter to KTVU that to this day "it is the fear of Neil that sticks out in my head."
Gibson says that during her time at Cal, McGuire used her relationship with her father, who played professionally, against her.
"[McGuire] would discuss my relationship with my father as a sign of weakness in my development as a player."
She said it was just one way that he got involved in the the players' "lives outside of soccer, outside the lines of being a coach."
Gibson described a culture of fear on the team, and how her experience at Cal is something she'd rather forget.
"Since I graduated and hung up my cleats for the last time I have made it a priority to repress these experiences," she wrote.
Looking for someone to listen
Multiple players said they had to seek therapy and even medication to deal with the stress and anxiety that McGuire created among the team. Several say they went to the University for help, but the response was hardly satisfactory, they told KTVU. They reached out to Athletic Department heads, the Office for Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination and the NCAA and UC Regents.
They believe Cal never took those reports seriously.
"We started talking and the two [administrators] looked at us like we had five heads. They said they had never heard anything bad about Neil McGuire," said Sekany. "When we used terms like 'emotional abuse' they were condescending in a way, as if we didn't understand the implications of using terminology like that, which we did. We discussed it at length and decided it was absolutely an appropriate term to describe what he'd been doing to us.”
Years earlier, Koski had also gone to administrators for help intervening between the team and McGuire. She said she had a hard time getting Cal to follow up with her.
“I had zero communication," Koski said, "and I was promised a survey would be sent and I remember looking back at my emails and it had been 221 days and I emailed them and thought this is really how Cal handles complaints.”
Cal denied KTVU's requests for on camera interviews with the athletic department administrators who fielded the written and verbal complaints from the players, citing Thomas's pending litigation and their policy to not discuss personnel issues to protect employee privacy.
A spokesman did, however, provide several written responses including one that outlined the university's student-athlete resources, performance review policies, and the legal limitations that prevented staff from commenting.
It said in part, "due to the pending litigation, as well as our legal obligation to keep personnel matters private, no campus employee is able to comment on, or respond to the specific issues and allegations you have described. In addition, those employees named in the allegations, as well as those who were/are involved in the response to these issues and allegations, are unable to participate in any interviews about these matters in order to protect the integrity of the legal process."
After KTVU made a public records request asking for all investigative documents related to Cal soccer players' claims, a clerk replied that there were none available. The university spokesman wrote that the school would not "disclose whether or not it is investigating or had investigated indivual employees."
He did confirm Cal has a "review" underway looking at the issues brought up by KTVU, but would not say when the review was started, who was conducting it, when it would be finished, or whether the results would be public.
The Cal spokesman also reiterated that the university administration values its student athletes and takes complaints seriously.
In another email statement, he wrote, “Every member of our staff shares a strong commitment to the success of our student athletes---academically, athletically and developmentally. Our nationally ranked women’s soccer program consistently produces GPA’s above 3.2. We have in place best-practice policies and procedures that enable Cal Athletics to respond quickly and comprehensively when there are allegations of misconduct and/or behavior by coaches that is inconsistent with our values and/or applicable rules and policies."
But the women who spoke to KTVU say, with McGuire still coaching the team, Cal's response is hardly sufficient. Not just for themselves, but for the next generation of players.
"There are girls who are committed to this school right now that will be here next year and in a few years. I want them to know the truth," said Clark.
KTVU reviewed emails between Cal and some of the women who filed formal complaints over the years. In multiple emails, administrators said the university had looked into their allegations about McGuire and found them unfounded.
After receiving a written complaint about the "Raingate" workout from Sekany's mother, Athletic Director Jim Knowlton wrote in a September 2019 email response that "the workout was assessed and determined compliant with criteria for conditioning workouts set forth by the department."
"We have spoken with our coaches, student-athletes, departments staff, campus staff, parents of current Cal Women's Soccer athletes, and others who interact with the Women's Soccer program," he wrote, and "found that your allegations were not validated."
But Sekany and her teammates said they weren't aware of anybody investigating the "Raingate" incident, and they couldn't find any teammates or parents who had been contacted.
"We have no idea," Sekany said. "None of my teammates that I've spoken to have been approached. No one knows of anyone who's been approached. No parents we've spoken to have been approached. The idea that they would have approached the coach and ask if they've been abusing us is kind of comical."
A broken system
The women who spoke to KTVU said that reaching out to the media was their last ditch effort to make somebody listen.
What the Cal athletes experienced is part of a larger problem, not just at this university, but throughout a system that doesn’t protect athletes or give them a way to protect themselves, according to Tim Nevius, a lawyer based in New York.
Nevius does not represent any of the Cal Women's Soccer players but works to advocate for athletes. He was a college athlete himself and worked for the NCAA as an investigator.
"So unfortunately these types of scenarios are more widespread than people realize and we've seen dozens of cases in the last two years alone, primarily in womens programs, that follow a strikingly similar pattern of abuse and mistreatment," Nevius said. "And unfortuatley with very little reponse and accountablity and reaction, too."
He says athletes are tougher than ever these days, juggling grueling practice schedules, classes, jobs, and the physical demands of their sports. But coaches also have an extraordinary amount of control over athletes and their lives, he said.
"Those coaches often have unchecked power over the athletes and control virutally every moment of the ahtletes' daily schedule and their lives," Nevius said. "They dig into their personal lives, their romantic lives, and they have extraordinary control of these athletes and that creates some serious opportunities for misbehavior."
He added that schools and the NCAA do not have adequate reporting mechanisms for addressing problem coaches and other related issues. And he believes players need independent representation, and lawmakers may need to get involved.
"When parents send their athletes off to college they expect the coaches and school are going to care for them and protect them and devleop them and push them and drive them, but not to the brink of mental health issues and serious psychological impairment."
Simone Aponte is the Executive Producer of KTVU's investigative unit. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @simoneaponte.
Claudine Wong is an anchor and reporter at KTVU. You can reach her at email@example.com or Twitter @ClaudineKTVU.