I Worked in Penn State Athletics: Harassment Is Still a Major Problem
A former trainer details the struggles encountered as a trans person working in the infamous athletic department.
It was my first job out of grad school. It was an opportunity to leave the South and head back up to where the concentration of people who weren’t Bible beaters was high. It was the chance to work at one of the most prominent names in all of sports.
It turned out to be a nightmare.
I thought they would’ve learned from their mistakes. I thought they would take accusations seriously. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I was the head athletic trainer for the women’s rugby team at Penn State University.
The Harassment at Penn State Came From All Sides
My time there was marred by harassment from both members of the athletic training staff, as well as the coaching staff and players of the women’s rugby team. It started shortly after I arrived in State College. I was the new kid: Nearly every other athletic trainer had gone to school at Penn State. They were set in their ways, content with the status quo and unyielding when presented with change. I didn’t know their system; I was barely keeping my head above water with no help in sight. I was belittled every time I asked a question. “You should already know this.” “Figure out buddy, we all had to.” I reported to a direct supervisor and the head athletic trainer. They promised me in my interview that I would be mentored and that the athletic training staff was like a family. The reality was that they had their own family. I was the red-headed stepchild.
Then there was the team. We had a decent relationship for the most part, except for the coach. She’d gone through five athletic trainers in a five-year span. No one got along with her. She wanted so much despite being a club team, not full varsity. Her team had access to weight rooms, doctors and rehabilitation facilities but that wasn’t enough. I was caught between doing my job (and keeping my bosses happy) and keeping her happy. When she wasn’t satisfied with things, it was my fault for not giving her resources. She fed this idea to the team: I was bad at my job because I couldn’t give her what she wanted. It was small peanuts compared to what was to come.
The Worst of It Unfolded on a Team Trip
The most egregious example of harassment was a spring break trip. The original plan was to travel to England for a week. Then COVID started to run its course. My doctor advised that I should not attend, as I am immunocompromised because I am transgender and take synthetic testosterone. (That’s a fun fact to find out at the start of a global pandemic, that the thing that helps you be your most authentic self is the thing that makes you more susceptible to illness).
I informed the head athletic trainer that I was no longer able to go on this trip for my own health and safety. The trainer and some of my peers accused me of making their lives too difficult because they would have to find a replacement. They talked behind my back about how awful I was because of something I couldn’t control. The trip ended up getting canceled and we pivoted to a trip to Atlanta, of which my doctor approved.
Then came the harassment from the team and head coach. The participants of the trip were assigned name tags that had degrading titles and compromising photos. The team found pictures of me prior to my medical transition and pasted them to my name tag. I was horrified to see the “old me” on full display to a group of people who’d known me for less than a year. My anxiety went through the roof. How was this OK? Who thought this was funny? We were forced to wear these name tags for the duration of the trip or we would receive monetary fines from seniors on the team (Venmo requests were sent).
Other things happened on the trip that did not directly involve me, such as racism and homophobia directed at underclassmen. Due to the sheer amount of bullshit I experienced, I left Penn State shortly after returning from spring break. In my exit interview, I brought these concerns to the attention of HR. This launched a two-month investigation by the athletics ethics committee. I had several phone interviews with members of the ethics and compliance board, the Title IX office and various other anti-discrimination organizations on campus.
The University Is Doing Nothing to Correct Past—and Present—Mistakes
At the end of their investigation, I was told that what had happened to me and the student-athletes was horrible, but it wasn’t “extreme or pervasive” enough to break any university policy. It wasn’t extreme or pervasive enough. The homophobia and transphobia displayed on the spring break trip from hell weren’t enough. I was told there was nothing anyone could do about what happened to me. They were not going to create a no-tolerance policy. No one got so much as a slap on the wrist. I got PTSD.
Penn State has learned nothing from its previous scandals. Everyone in the athletics department is willing to fall on their sword to protect the image of the university. They claim they’ve changed, that the Jerry Sandusky case made them step back and address the culture that protected him. It’s clear that they didn’t, and that victims of harassment and abuse won’t get their justice if there is any question of how it would affect the university’s perception. The rules are so lax that what normal people would consider a terrible offense doesn’t even mildly bend the rules. I looked into suing for damages but didn’t have a leg to stand on because there were no violations of university policy.
So, this is my way of processing and healing: telling my story.