For Auburn softball, joy on the surface obscured darker truths within
A little over a year ago, I gave a speech to the Auburn Tigers softball team. I did not give it at a banquet or any kind of official ceremony; I delivered it from the aisle of a tour bus, at the prompting of a coach who wanted me to explain to the girls -- and he never called them, nor did they ever call themselves, anything but girls -- why a writer with a precarious hold on middle age had decided to travel with them for their three-game series with the Florida Gators.
And so, on a highway somewhere between Alabama and Florida, I told 19 Division I softball players what I'm telling you now. I was traveling with the Auburn softball team because I love softball, and I love softball because I love my 15-year-old daughter, who is a softball player. I was traveling with the Auburn softball team because the year before, when I watched the Tigers play the Oklahoma Sooners for the national championship in the Women's College World Series, I saw something I'd never seen in a lifetime of watching sports. It was the seventh and final inning of the third and final game; they were down a run with two outs. Oklahoma's best pitcher was in the circle, and Auburn was down to a sophomore pinch-hitter named Courtney Shea. She was overmatched and knew it, and to give herself courage, she began singing a Beyonce song. She fouled off one pitch, then another; she wound up fouling off four straight pitches, singing the whole time, and when at last she grounded out, she sobbed as she reached first base.
It was not her tears that led me to the bus, or even her song. It was what the tears and the song represented to me -- an unfettered access to feeling that made the range of emotion on display in men's sports seem narrow or even impoverished by comparison. As freely as softball players surrender to sadness they are able to give themselves over to joy, and so their sport retains a sense of freedom that makes even its routine rituals revelatory. There is something fleeting about the games we play that softball miraculously preserves -- the simple fact that these are games and that we play them to attain a kind of joy. You've heard -- of course you've heard -- that there is no crying in baseball? There is crying in softball, lots of it, and the tears offer a corrective to the casual corruptions of the sports most men watch as a matter of habit.
I spoke from the heart, as a softball dad who saw, in the young women sitting in rows before me, the fulfillment of my fond wish for my own child. And I wish I could say that after my speech the players welcomed me to their privileged place in the back of the bus, the environs they occupied with an armament of personal electronics and a DVD of "Zoolander" and a border between front and back they'd electrified with an inviolable awareness of their own distinction. And there was, come to think of it, one player with her hair in braids, one of the freshmen who'd been allowed to travel with the team, who smiled and said: "Cool." But the rest of the Auburn Tigers were a narrow-eyed lot, and they regarded me with cool inscrutability. I could not have suspected, much less known, what they, even then, had to know -- that the very dream I extolled would, within the space of days, be broken and that the bastion of simple joy I described would, before the next season began, lay in ruins, with their coaches disgraced, their athletic director resigned in the wake of scandal and investigation, and two of the players on the bus shunned by their teammates. I could not even have guessed that a year or so later, the question they had to be asking of my presence would be the question that I am asking too, even now:
Why was I allowed to get on the bus in the first place?
"Tom, are you a good man or a great one?" Auburn coach Clint Myers asked after I sat down next to him in the front of the bus.
"I'd like to think I'm a good man trying to be a great one."
Everybody protected Coach. Nobody protected us.Haley Fagan
"Oh, everybody says that. They're afraid of sounding like egomaniacs. But that's just the easy way out."
"Are you a great man?" I asked.
"Of course," he said. "Words have meanings. Is great better than good?"
"Then I have to be great. When I look in the mirror every morning, I say, 'Hello, Awesome.'"
It was March 24, 2017, and Clint Myers was at that time possibly the greatest, maybe the most famous and definitely the most recognizable coach in college softball. He had won two national championships at Arizona State, in 2008 and 2011, and had made Auburn a title contender within two years of his arrival in 2013. He was inducted to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2015, and on the weekend I traveled with his team to Gainesville, Florida, he was seeking his 1,500th combined win as a softball and men's baseball coach. He wasn't just a successful coach and teacher; he was a transformational one who, in the words of ESPN softball analyst and two-time Olympic softball gold medalist Michele Smith, did "something almost unprecedented -- he made average players good players and good players great ones. He took .250 hitters and made them into .400 hitters."
Like all winning coaches, Myers did it by persuading his players to buy into his process, or his program, or what he called his philosophy -- by persuading them to surrender something of themselves, including their autonomy, to the cause of the greater good, the byproduct of which just happened to be winning.
He made them cry, he said. Just that morning, he told most of his freshmen that they couldn't board the bus and had to stay behind in Auburn, and one of them had cried in his office for half an hour. It was a power that seemed to discomfit and dismay him -- "they tend to cry when they come to my office. I don't know why that is." But he also cried with them, because he was involved in so many aspects of their lives, from the tragedies they experienced back home to the occasional miscreancy of their boyfriends. "I meet all their boyfriends," he said. "I believe that they should be treated like ladies, like their opinion matters, like they're important. Because they're important to me." Of course, they also cried when they lost the Women's College World Series in 2016, but he told them they had nothing to be ashamed of. They had done what he had asked them to do. They had performed "at the highest level on the biggest stage," and more important, they understood what he wanted them to understand: that greatness is a way of life. "I believe," he said, "that these girls have accepted the philosophy of making the world a better place one at-bat and one play at a time."
But there was something else about Clint Myers: He was an old man. Though only 65, he could have passed for 80, with a raw, pained pinkish face, eyes dark with watchfulness, a parroty mouth given to grimace and white hair dented by a lifetime of ball caps. He wore black spectacles and white support socks, and though sealed in what seemed a permanent layering of coaching gear -- the billowing nylon pullover in Auburn orange, the polyester shorts in Auburn blue -- he bore an unmistakable resemblance to the Letterman sidekick Larry "Bud" Melman, with the same gnomic peculiarity. He was still feared and fearsome on the field and so exacting that a big yellow stopwatch hung from his neck like an article of religious devotion. But as he was growing old, he was not just, in his words, "mellowing," but becoming so familiar and downright cute that some of his players treated him like a mascot and called him Coachie. He was also in the process of trying to extend his legacy with the girls by relinquishing power to the men.
He called the men boys because they were his sons; Casey was 38 and Corey was 36. But they were men. They did not call him Coachie, but rarely did they call him Dad. They called him Coach, and Corey's children called him Grandpa Coach. Like their father, the sons had played baseball at very high levels -- Casey in college and in the minors, Corey as a touted prospect who never made it to the majors -- and like their father they had decided to build their lives around the invincible calculus of the three-strike out and the three-out inning. Indeed, Casey had been working as a minor league coach and Corey as a coach for the Birmingham Bolts, a softball travel team that functions as the source for much of Auburn's roster, when Coach left Arizona State and came with his wife, Katie, to "the loveliest village on the Plains," between Atlanta and Montgomery. He had done it for them; he had come to Auburn at least in part because Arizona State wouldn't let him work with Corey and Auburn would. Now he had what he wanted; the coach's sons were coaches, and he lived between a split reflection of himself, Casey the thinker and teacher, and Corey -- well, as Corey told me, "If you want to know what [Coach] was like when he was young, just look at me." Coach was, in his own words, "an arrogant prick, self-proclaimed" as a young man, and certainly Corey had some of that belligerent arrogance about him, combined with the almost pleading insecurity of an heir. His father had chosen him as his successor; Corey was, after all, a father and a husband himself and now worked as associate head coach. "When we put this thing together, that was the plan," Coach told me. "It would be Corey's program, Casey would help, and I'd come on as a volunteer coach. I would get to be a consultant. I would love to raise money, I would love to holler at umpires from the stands, I would love to support these guys in every way and say, 'Those are my boys!'"
And there it was. When I traveled with the Auburn softball team, Clint Myers was on the verge of achieving an ambition that was nothing less than dynastic. He was on the verge of making Auburn softball a family business, closely held, and he was in the process of making his players believe that his family was also their family, with the men and the girls sharing a single table. All were invited; all were welcome; and when the bus finally stopped rolling and the team went to its first practice at the University of Florida's softball field, I stood on the outside of a meeting the coaches had with their players, and Coach motioned me in. "Come on, Tom," he said. "You can go to any meeting you want, and you can ask any question you want. You're part of the family now."
I believed him.
I believed them, the men, the girls, the graduate assistants, the trainers, the assistant SID and his videographer, the team manager, the associate professor of kinesiology who worked with Coach to bring a scientific basis to his sometimes whimsical decision-making, and the big bald bus driver named Robin. And so, the first night, when the whole traveling caravan finally settled down to dinner in a Gainesville restaurant, I saw a place at the long banquet table set for the players and only the players and asked if I could sit down. The player next to the open seat was senior third baseman Kasey Cooper, the most lauded and accomplished of the Tigers, espnW's 2016 Player of the Year.
"No," she said flatly, before explaining that the seat was spoken for.
The girls had created a family of their own. They had come to Auburn because Auburn, a land grant institution of 30,000 students, was "all about family." They played for the Myerses because the Myerses were not only all about family, they were a family -- "they're all blood relatives and they all live next to one another," one of the players told me as a measure of her approval. With the exception of the players recruited from the softball hotbed of Southern California, they were, for the most part, from the state of Alabama, and if they weren't, they were from the South. Most were raised either in small towns or the suburbs; they were overwhelmingly white and Christian and conservative. They never asked me about my work; they asked me about my family, and one afternoon, when I was sitting by myself at one of the round tables in the hotel conference room that had been reserved for the use of the players, Kasey Cooper walked up and said to me, with her characteristic absence of preamble, "Don't you miss your wife and your daughter?" I told her I did, and she wound up sitting and telling me about her plans to become a surgeon. She was a naturally shy person whose success had forced her to speak for her team, a trial she endured with public aplomb and private discomfort; she wanted to be a surgeon because it was the only job that would allow her to help humanity and at the same time remain in control and essentially alone. "I hate people," she said for effect, but also with something like resignation.
It was what made the family of girls like the real thing: They were cranky and sometimes unfriendly, they were exclusive rather than inclusive, and they adhered to rigorous protocols that set them apart, whether eating or boarding the bus. Like most families, they also had a member who was as set apart from them as they were set apart from everyone else. She was a player who did not often play, but she stood out because she was so often alone. Wherever the team was, she wasn't, and she was always occupied by the life apparently unfolding on her phone. I would have thought her simply standoffish if she didn't also seem so sad, as isolated as she was enigmatic.
Then again, none of the Auburn Tigers looked as happy or as happy-go-lucky as I expected them to be ... or, indeed, as I wanted them to be. My softball story was to be about joy, and yet the team as a whole exuded an atmosphere of toil and trouble, especially when it started losing. In the first game at Florida, the Tigers took a lead into the seventh and then lost on two unearned runs after a dropped fly ball; in the second game, they sagged and surrendered as soon as Florida pitcher Kelly Barnhill released her first 70 mph rise ball with her signature scream. The losses divided the team along what I took to be conventional lines -- between the self-described gamers who wanted Coach to reclaim some of his old arrogance and chew them out, and the polite Southern girls who wanted to spend time with their parents in the hotel lobby. But that wasn't it, not at all. The division was ongoing and deep-seated. It wasn't the result of something as incidental as the loss of a couple of games but rather something fundamental and therefore irrevocable. They had been indoctrinated into the belief that Coach belonged to their family and they belonged to Coach's. They were about to learn once and for all that the family of the girls never mattered as much as the Myers men.
"Your eyes lied," Corey Myers said at the team's Monday morning meeting before the final game at Florida. He had videos of each at-bat his players took against Kelly Barnhill, each futile and foolhardy swing that led to their 16 strikeouts. He was telling them now that their difficulties were a problem of perception. They had seen what wasn't there and hadn't seen what was.
They had never doubted his knowledge of the game, nor his ability to teach it. What they had questioned all along was their own eyes -- if they had in fact seen what they thought they'd seen. So now they listened to their associate head coach, and later, when they went to the batting cages at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium, Corey noticed not only how they were swinging their bats but also the quiet resolve they brought to the task. "I like this," he said. "You girls are very ... tranquilo." He skidded one palm off the other, and repeated the word as if he liked the sound. "Tranquilo."
I have to tell you that I will do whatever I have to do to protect my family.Clint Myers
It was the last tranquil moment Corey would have as the associate head coach of the Auburn Tigers, because even as the players took swings in the cages, something was happening outside on the field. Some of the players had obtained evidence that they indeed had seen something they thought they'd seen, and now some were crying. They were passing phones back and forth and clapping their hands over their mouths in shock or bursting into angry and heartbroken tears when they saw what was on the screen. But what was on the screen? What could be on the screen? I had not a clue; I ascribed what I was witnessing to the incendiary power of gossip in close quarters. Then I settled down to watch Auburn play Florida in softball.
It happened to be a great game, replete with everything I love about the sport. With Auburn ahead 1-0 in the seventh inning, Florida had two outs, a runner on second and the team's best hitter at the plate. She cracked a line drive off the knee of Auburn starter Kaylee Carlson, whom I had seen before the game staring aghast at the screen of a phone with her hand over her mouth. She made the play, calmly picking the ball from the grass and throwing to first before limping off the field with the win. She was one of the gamers; so was shortstop Haley Fagan, who, when the teams lined up to shake hands, declined the hand of Florida coach Tim Walton, who had once kicked two of her sisters and a dear friend named Cheyenne Coyle off his team. But this was a very different night, and as Fagan brushed past him, Walton brought his extended hand to her shoulder. Believing she had been shoved, she shoved him back, and the rest lives on as a video that went viral: teammates restraining Fagan, Fagan shouting imprecations at Walton, and an electric charge of mayhem that seems entirely incommensurate to the initial physical contact.
I didn't understand. I didn't understand when Coach gathered his players together and marched them back to the bus as one. I didn't understand when, even as her teammates climbed onto the bus, the player I'd identified either as an enigma or an outcast remained far apart from them, furiously using her phone. I didn't understand even when, on the plane back home, Coach went up and down the aisle, forbidding his players from using their phones and going on social media. I didn't understand until three days later, when Corey Myers resigned because, as he explained in a statement, "it became clear to me that my relationship with my family needs to be my top priority right now."
May I say right now that I liked Clint Myers? We hit it off. At night, I'd go to talk with him in his hotel suite while he watched SportsCenter, and I liked his philosophical bent and his oddball singularity, even in the company of his sons. But of course the question of whether I liked him or not was beside the point. Two days after Corey resigned, I took my family to watch Auburn play Georgia in a road series and introduced my teenage daughter to Coach. He greeted her graciously and then asked if she wanted to attend one of his summer softball camps in Auburn. And at that moment, I understood that all his talk of family was not merely motivational rhetoric or even manipulative subterfuge. It was a primal commitment he had no choice but to honor, to the exclusion of all benefit of the doubt.
The next day, I drove again to Athens and met him in his hotel room to ask him questions in the aftermath of Corey's departure. He was with Katie, his plainspoken wife, who sat propped by pillows reading a book in her hotel bed. Coach sat in a chair and told me he wouldn't answer any questions about Corey but that he would talk about softball. And so I asked him about himself and about the dissolution of the dreams he brought to the Auburn softball program. He answered that he didn't know if the dream had dissolved because Corey might still come back. Katie had been listening as she read. "Oh, c'mon, Clint! It's over!" she said.
A month later, I drove to Knoxville for the SEC softball tournament and met Coach in another hotel. "Hello, my friend," he said. "Are you here for a social visit or are you still writing a story?"
"I'm still writing a story."
"When is it going to be published?"
"When I know what is going on with your team."
"What do you want to know?"
And then I asked him a question about Corey's connection to the isolated player always on her phone.
"I know you have a job to do," he said. "But I have to tell you that I will do whatever I have to do to protect my family."
And that's when I knew that he had made a choice and that when he was talking about his family, he wasn't talking about the girls.
They are all gone now. Corey Myers resigned from his position as associate head coach of the Auburn softball team on March 30 of last year. Clint Myers retired on Aug. 23, citing "40 years of coaching and reflecting on the importance of spending quality time with my wife, my children and my grandchildren," and Casey followed. Assistant coach Scott Woodard, a sandpapery Myers loyalist who used to baby-sit the boys, served as interim head coach until Sept. 14, when athletic director Jay Jacobs named Mickey Dean, from James Madison University, as his permanent replacement. Two months later, Jacobs himself resigned, faced with a cascade of scandal involving multiple sports.
And yet when I travel to Auburn this March for the game between the Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide, I don't go to take a tally of who and what is gone. Nor do I go to contemplate all over again the joys unique to softball, or even to enjoy a game between two historic rivals. No, I want to see what remains.
The Myerses still live in Auburn, still down the block from one another, and for the opener of the 2018 season at Jane B. Moore Field, Clint showed up, along with Katie and Casey. They do not go to another game -- but a few of the players from last year's team do, one of them in a festive orange sombrero. They are part of the Auburn family, after all, and they will always be welcome.
Am I welcome? I am, to a degree -- even though most of the players who played for Clint won't talk to me. I manage to sit in a block of seats allocated to the families of the players on the 2018 edition of the Tigers and am immediately recognized by Robin the bus driver. Large and gregarious, he extends a hand, a gesture of kindness that prompts me to start talking about the trip to Florida and that prompts him to answer as if by shaking hands we've sealed a pact of secrecy. He never stops smiling, but his smile is fretful and put-upon, and this is what he says without my asking a single question:
"I didn't know anything then and I don't know anything now -- do you know what I mean? That's how I stay here."
Auburn is all about family. So are the Myerses. So was the softball team that ended the 2017 season in a super regional game against eventual national champion Oklahoma with Kasey Cooper waiting on deck but never able to get to the plate. Families are supposed to protect their own. But that's not how it's worked at Auburn over the past year. Sure, Auburn has protected Auburn, never telling the truth unless forced to admit it and delaying the release of cherry-picked documents and responding to the first published allegations about the softball program with the promise of a "comprehensive review" that has never been mentioned again. And the Myerses have protected the Myerses, never once admitting wrongdoing. But nobody protected the girls. "Everybody protected Coach," Haley Fagan says. "Nobody protected us."
So they had to protect themselves. They realized that they had to do something about Corey, and they did something about him. They put their season at risk to do something about him, which means that they put themselves -- or at least what was left of their softball careers -- at risk. They stood up to him, and they stood up to his father, and they tried to stand up for one another. They also turned on one another, rejecting one player and casting another aside, and in all of this they proved they were what they said they were all along: a family.
Corey, at first, had been almost like a brother to them -- "he was funny, and he kept things light," Fagan says. But sometimes, even when he was being funny, players say, he was being inappropriate -- he was flirty, he said stuff, he rated players' looks, he put his hands on your butt as if he were treating you like one of the guys. But of course you weren't one of the guys. You either put up with it or you didn't, and life as an Auburn Tiger was harder for you if you didn't and easier if you did -- "that's how you knew if they liked you," a member of the 2016 team says. Still, it was a shock when some of the girls began suspecting something was going on between Corey and one of their teammates during the run to the World Series in 2016. First of all, it was against the rules. And second, they were playing amazing softball. They were having the time of their lives. This was why they had come to Auburn, and now Corey was putting it at risk. But their teammate never said anything, so they never said anything either. Then, in the summer of 2016, Fagan started walking a friend's dog early in the morning by the softball complex. She began seeing Corey's car parked next to the car of another player, the player who had always been quiet, enigmatic, set apart. Fagan took pictures and sent them to teammates. And she wasn't the only one who suspected something. After school started in the fall of 2016, some of her teammates made anonymous complaints to the athletic department, which promised an investigation. Corey made a tearful apology to the team and took a leave of absence. But Coach started questioning the girls who complained and urging the ones who didn't to "fight for Corey," in Fagan's recollection. Some of the players even wrote letters to the athletic department on his behalf. And then one day Corey was back.
For a while, everything calmed down. And some of the players talked to the teammate they suspected of involvement with Corey, telling her to stop. But with spring 2017 upon them, Cheyenne Coyle, then a graduate assistant, told Coach Myers that she had seen Corey in the weight room holding hands with the player who had always been quiet, enigmatic and set apart. Coach asked if she was sure she'd seen what she said she'd seen; maybe her eyes lied. And so when the girls boarded the bus for Gainesville for the trip on which I had joined them, some of them started seeking proof. They found it prior to the final game when the player they suspected went for batting practice. A teammate took her phone and then took pictures of the text messages between her and Corey. She showed the messages, which were intimate in nature, to other teammates. Three days later, while the team prepared to board the bus for Athens, a group of players showed the texts to Meredith Jenkins, the executive associate athletic director at Auburn. She was concerned about the evidence of Corey's behavior but also by how the evidence had been obtained. Players say she ordered them to the team room for a meeting, and they stayed there for three hours, confused about whether they were being protected or punished. At last she came and announced that Corey had resigned. She also ordered the players to delete the texts from their phones, warning them that they risked the possibility of prosecution if they didn't. Four and a half hours after their scheduled departure, they boarded the bus to Athens.
Two months later, Oklahoma ended Auburn's season, and a walk-on freshman named Alexa Nemeth met with Clint Myers and Scott Woodard for her exit interview. She was the player who said "Cool" after I'd addressed the team on the bus. A physics major, she came prepared; she did not feel that the coaches had treated her fairly or given her enough opportunity, so she brought a contract for them to sign. They laughed and cut her. Within days, she filed a Title IX sexual discrimination complaint that stated outright an accusation others had whispered: "Coach Clint Myers knowingly let his son Corey Myers have relations and pursue relations with multiple members of the team."
That's when I started talking to players over the phone, most of them requesting anonymity. One of the players who didn't was Whitney Jordan, and in the course of our conversation I wondered aloud why I'd been there -- why Clint Myers had allowed me to go with the team to Florida. She said, "I don't know if you're Christian or not, but I think God put you there to tell the truth." Since then, I've taped 130 conversations on the subject of Auburn softball. I've obtained documents through FOIA requests and confidential sources, and in partnership with ESPN investigative reporter Paula Lavigne, I've written a series of news stories reporting the problems Clint and Corey Myers have left behind at both softball teams they've coached and why Auburn hired and advanced them anyway. And after all this, I still can't begin to understand two things:
First, how their coaches treated them.
And second, how they treated each other.
We meet in the afternoon at a Mexican restaurant a few dozen miles from Auburn so that no one from there will see us talking. It is an off hour, so there are very few customers, and the emptiness of the restaurant emphasizes the news being broadcast from the television mounted on the wall. It is October 2017; America is in the first throes of #MeToo-inspired reckoning with sexual secrets and abuses of power; Harvey Weinstein has finally been exposed, and I am meeting a player who says she was targeted by Corey Myers during the 2016 season.
She wants to preserve her anonymity. But she also wants to let me know who she is and what she has been through, with the use of a word she still struggles to apply to herself.
"The V-word," she calls it. "Victim. At first I couldn't go there." But she's learned to accept it not just as a designation but as an expression of her own experience. This is what she tells me: She was victimized. Her coach, Corey Myers, victimized her. He targeted her and he traumatized her. It has taken her a long time to be able to say this. "I kept my mouth closed for a year and a month," she says. She didn't tell anyone but her roommate and her best friend and then the counselor she began seeing in the fall of 2016, driving to Montgomery for the appointments so that nobody in Auburn could find out she was seeking help. "I was so upset," she says, not because of what she remembered but rather what she forgot. "For a whole year I was so grossed out by it and so ashamed of it that I stuffed it in a place you could kind of forget about it. I intentionally forgot a lot about it and that's trauma." Then she says she heard what had happened to the enigmatic and isolated player whose text exchanges with Corey had been lifted from her phone and she contacted her. She said they began talking and comparing their experiences, and eventually that player asked her to tell her own story to the athletic department. On June 9, she told her story to Meredith Jenkins, then to Clint Myers. She's telling me now because she's learned that it's her story to tell, and she's hoping that I'll learn something from it about Auburn, about Meredith Jenkins, about Clint Myers and about herself and her friend -- that they were not and are not to blame.
Her friend -- who has never spoken to me -- has been blamed. Her teammates told me they blamed her. They had just learned about Corey's resignation. They had just spent three hours in the team room. They were preparing to get on the bus to Athens when several seniors, including Haley Fagan and Kasey Cooper, objected to the inclusion of the player who had denied any involvement with Corey and had now, against her will, incriminated him. They were not defending Corey. They were a family that demanded honesty of its members, and they delivered to their coach a devastating ultimatum: If she's on the bus, we're off. Clint Myers did not agree with their decision; neither did Meredith Jenkins. But they believed they were standing up for what was right, and they prevailed. Now, in the Mexican restaurant, the player from 2016 wants to say she empathizes with what happened to that enigmatic player in 2017 because it happened to her.
They were the same kind of girls, she says. They were small-town girls. They were Christian girls. They didn't have "reputations." "We followed a very narrow path and didn't stray very far from it, and all of a sudden this very nontraditional thing happened in my life." She doesn't like to talk about the nontraditional thing; she doesn't like trading in specifics about something she still regards as private, except to say that "there was no touch. There was nothing physical. It was all about power, and all verbal and emotional. He was just very controlling, asking for us to do things. That's the sick part about it." What's really sick, she says, "was that it was happening to both of us at the same time, but we didn't know about it until we started talking."
And so, she says, there are two ways of looking at what happened. "You can look at it that we were both young women who could make our own choices. Or you could look at it as we were sought out and targeted. That's how the administration took it. But with the girls on the team, it was a different approach. I can't blame them." Experts, in fact, say that's how it frequently works: A coach isolates a player, creating an us-against-them dynamic within the team, and the group complies. When I ask her what she believes hurt her counterpart more, the abuse she suffered at the hands of Corey Myers or the team's decision to ostracize her, the answer comes quickly: "The team ostracizing her, for sure. I can't speak for her. But when I was on the team, those were my friends. But when they did that to her, she didn't have anyone."
She tells me I got the story wrong about the Auburn athletic department, and so did everyone else. "You thought that the person who has helped me more than anyone else, who has advocated for me more than anyone else, which is Meredith Jenkins, tried to hurt me. She urged me to go to Title IX."
And it is the same, she says, with Coach. "There is no doubt in my mind that Coach Myers loves me," she says. "No doubt in my mind. He might not have understood the magnitude of what his son did. But I talked to him two back-to-back days, and the one thing I'm sure of is that it had nothing to do with him. He didn't know and couldn't have known. For a 100 percent fact he didn't know about me. He didn't know about me until June 9, 2017."
But Clint Myers was a man who boasted of meeting the boyfriends of his players so that he could determine their suitability. How could he not know what his son was doing, and how could she be so sure that he didn't?
"Because he was crying," she says.
He has a story to tell, he says. One day he might tell it to me. Or he might not. Maybe he'll tell it to someone else.
I have called Corey Myers several times over the past year in order to give him the opportunity to comment on stories I'm writing about him. We have talked for a few minutes; we have talked for 45. One time, his wife came on the line and asked to pray with me. Most times, he has demanded the conversation be off the record and has told me that he has his tape recorder turned on. So I can't say exactly what we've talked about. But I can say what the conversations are like, because then I can say what he is like. Master manipulators, many of the girls have called him and his father -- and now I can vouch for that assessment. He likes to be a step ahead when he talks to you on the phone. He likes to race to quick, if not necessarily accurate, conclusions about where you're headed and then try cornering you with them. He thinks and talks fast. He can be sly, mocking, bullying, threatening and occasionally self-lacerating. He can sound desperate and he can sound in command, and when he has a soft spot for people he's talking about, you can hear it in his voice. He's cocky and shifty and if in person he tries to come off like the star of a big-budget action movie, on the phone he sounds like the fall guy in a late-'40s film noir, precisely too smart for his own good. And most of the time he hints that the next time, he'll talk on the record, and the next time he might just have a story to tell.
He never does. He talked to me once on the record, about Alexa Nemeth. After an investigation in which no former teammates provided statements for her, the university found that proof of his sexual misconduct with others did not constitute proof that he was responsible for sexually harassing Alexa Nemeth. He was happy to be found "non-responsible." He wished her well.
And so I have my own story about Corey. It's about a second son growing up in a baseball family not just as an outstanding player but as an exemplar -- the fruition of every single moment every single member of the family has devoted to the game. He's the star, he sets records, and at the end of his storied high school career in Phoenix, the Arizona Diamondbacks pick him fourth in the 1999 major league baseball draft -- the local hero. When he's 18, they give him a couple of million dollars and send him off to play shortstop for the rookie league Osprey in Missoula, Montana. The next year, he plays third base in South Bend, Indiana. The next year ... well, eventually he also plays catcher and first base, and although he works hard and has a good attitude, "time eventually runs out, because eventually someone else comes along," as Don Mitchell, who drafted him for the Diamondbacks, says. He never takes a swing in the major leagues, and in 2007 he lets go of the dream and goes to work as a volunteer coach for his dad at Arizona State. But no matter what he does and where he goes, he has a lot to live down. As Cheyenne Coyle, who played for Tim Walton at Florida and Clint Myers at ASU and worked as a graduate assistant at Auburn, says, "He's just an insecure former baseball player. He's a great coach and he knows a lot. But everybody knows he's one of the biggest flops of all time." He tries too hard and plays too many angles and in 2011 he's banned from the softball program in part for trying to use it to the advantage of the businesses he's trying to build. Two years later, his father leaves Arizona State for Auburn in order to realize his dream of working with Corey, and on Aug. 21, 2017, Auburn bans Corey from campus property after finding "sufficient evidence" that he has violated university policy "with more than one student" under his supervision. Two days later, his father retires, pulled down again and at last by the son he has always tried to pull up.
It's the story that I wish he would tell, because it's the story I've been wanting to tell since I learned why he and his father had to resign. Clint Myers came to Auburn with the dream of turning the softball program into a family -- his family. But families are strange and volatile and deeply imperfect organizations, rife with secrets and cruelties and the potential for abuse, and the story of Corey Myers at Auburn proves that the man he calls Coach did not fail in what he set out to do when he set out to build a family at Auburn. He succeeded all too well.
She is a different person than she was when she started playing softball for Auburn and Clint Myers -- a better one, she says. She is telling her story in the Mexican restaurant because she wants people to know what happened to her at Auburn. But she is emphatic on one point: It's not her story if it doesn't include the good things that happened as well as the bad, because she's been shaped by the good things as well as the bad. "The year we were in the World Series, we were the Cinderella story," she says. "We caught fire at the end. Everybody wanted to be part of the Auburn softball program, every person wanted to be part of the success story that our team had, every little girl looked up to us. And sadly, that's not what you think of now when you think of Auburn softball. You think of catastrophe. But that's not what it was. We bought into something; this man came across the country to tell us we could do something and we did it."
That's the secret within the game. It's this huge stack of joy that nothing traumatizing can take away.Former Auburn player
"But you were traumatized," I say.
"But that was a fraction of the time," she says. "And that was one man, not Coach. It was traumatic. But all the trauma doesn't equate to the amount of joy and pride. In 20 years, no one will remember this. But in 20 years I'll be able to remember every detail of the 2016 Women's College World Series and I'll be able to share those details with an 8-year-old girl who wants to know what it was like. And she'll hang on every word because that 8-year-old wants to be me. And that's the secret within the game. It's this huge stack of joy that nothing traumatizing can take away."
And, of course, I hear in her speech a disquieting echo of the speech I made on the bus ride to Florida, before I knew what I knew. I faced a team of softball players and called their sport a "bastion of joy" and then wondered why they seemed to regard me with suspicion. I asked for their permission to view them as uncomplicated and was surprised when they declined my request and then shocked when complication ambushed me at every turn. And yet here is a young woman who knows what I can never know-a softball player with a story of sexual exploitation she is just beginning to face-and yet she is saying that decades hence, nobody will remember the trauma but rather the stacks of joy.
I do not think she is right, because trauma is as opportunistic as it is tenacious and as unruly as it is unpredictable -- and because no matter who else forgets about what happened that year in the Auburn softball program, she will always remember. But neither do I think that she is wrong about joy being "the secret within the game." Of course it is, because she keeps on coming back. She suffered at Auburn but keeps coming back to Auburn. She suffered playing softball but keeps coming back to softball, coaching a team of 8-year-olds. Her faith that softball is about joy-when she is well aware of what else it can be about-is precisely as resilient as she is, indeed one of the wellsprings of her resilience, as is her love of Auburn and her love of Clint Myers.
But here's what I've learned from her, and from her former teammates, in the year and two months since I extolled softball from the aisle of a tour bus: Her fierce attachment to the promise of joy did not protect her from the possibility of harm. It made her more vulnerable because she wanted so badly to hold on to something she knew was precious and perishable and lasted only four years.
She understands this, and yet she still holds fast not only to the promise of joy but to the promises Clint Myers made to her about greatness as a way of life and making the world a better place one at-bat at a time. "People call it a cult," she says. "But it was a cult everyone wished they could join. It only became a cult when it became a catastrophe." And so when she heads out to coach her team of 8-year-olds and says, "I'm going to coach them just like Coach," I fear both for her and for them. I fear for her because even after all she's been through she can still say that the girls on her team want to be her, and I fear for them because if she has succeeded in sharing her dream, then they already are. For the past two hours she has told me a story about softball, but their story is just beginning, and I can only pray that it ends differently from hers and that they learn the secret within the game without having to endure what she did-the secrets within the game.
I tell myself I'm pulling off the highway on a whim. I'm driving to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to attend the championship tournament of the pro softball league and to interview Haley Fagan. I pass the signs for Auburn and find myself taking the exit and driving straight to the softball facility adjacent to Jane B. Moore Field. I don't even have to think about where I'm going; I drive as if in a dream or propelled by a memory. It's Aug. 17, 2017, a drowsy day in Auburn, the students trickling back and the clouds in the sky oblivious with heat. I park my car among the few in the lot, the scattering of coaches' cars. I take the elevator upstairs. I walk toward Clint Myers' office and don't stop until I'm inside the door.
"Coach," I say.
There are four of them, and they all stop moving. They stop talking. They are all dressed identically, in Auburn orange and Auburn blue, and they are all wearing hats indoors. To my right, stretched out, with his hands laced behind his head, is Hunter Veach, an assistant coach who believes that Clint Myers is the greatest man he's ever known. To my left, almost at the point of my elbow, is Scott Woodard, the coiled loyalist. In the back of the room, tilting on an office chair, turned toward his father, is Casey Myers, bearded and bearish, quiet and considerate, the family brain who's been called upon to render service as the family counsel. And behind the desk is Coach, who acknowledges me with a nod.
"Tom," he says.
"I've been calling, Coach. I've been leaving you messages."
"I know, Tom. What can I do for you?"
"I'd like to know if I can talk to you."
"Well," he says, "I don't know if I have anything to say."
"Coach, you told me once that I was a member of the family and that I could ask you anything."
"We're way beyond that now, Tom."
There has been no movement in the room. There is no movement in the room. I've not looked at anyone but him, and he's not looked at anybody but me. We're having a very private conversation, with an audience.
"I'm writing a story about you that's going to affect your program and affect your life," I say. "I'd like to give you a chance to answer some questions."
"How can I do that if I don't know what you're going to write?"
"If we sit and talk, you'll have a better idea of what I'm writing."
And now he turns to Casey, who has been facing him for as long as I've been standing in the room. They look at each other for a long time, then Coach turns back toward me with an air of resolution. "No, I don't think I'm going to do that, Tom."
"Is that a personal decision or a matter of Auburn policy?"
He looks at me. Then he closes his eyes, an extended blink, the pained expression on his face leaving and coming back, like a heartbeat. "I think it's personal, Tom."
"Then can I ask you one question?"
When I pulled into the parking lot, I told myself to ask if he's a good man or a great one. But now I hear myself asking the question that has haunted me from the moment I heard of Corey's resignation, or maybe from the moment I gave the speech on the bus and the girls stared back at me like pawnbrokers eyeing a guy hocking his wedding ring. "Why did you let me go with you?"
Casey turns to me. "Do you mean the trip?"
"Yes. Knowing what you knew. You didn't know everything, but you knew enough."
And then we stare at each other, Coach and I. We don't take our eyes off each other, as if each of us is waiting for the other to make a move. In four days, his son Corey Myers will learn that he's been banned permanently from the campus where I stand. In six days, Coach will no longer be a coach. But none of that has happened yet, and until he answers, the world is suspended as it was. I wait; he waits; the seconds pass; they feel like minutes; they are minutes; the clock groans. Then, just like that, he relaxes his shoulders, and the motion, after so much stillness, seems like an expression of emotion, seems like a shrug.
"I thought it was about softball," he says.