NCAA sued by 7 women for failure to protect in alleged sexual assaults

Seven women, including three female athletes, are suing the NCAA, alleging that the organization failed to protect them from alleged sexual assaults by male college athletes, despite having an obligation to do so.

The women allege that they were sexually assaulted by male athletes at three institutions: Michigan State, Nebraska and one unnamed Division I college from the America East Conference, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

The lawsuit accuses the NCAA of negligence, fraud and breach of contract. It argues that the NCAA, as a regulatory body for college athletics, had a duty to the women "to supervise, regulate, monitor and provide reasonable and appropriate rules to minimize the risk of injury or danger to student-athletes and by student-athletes."

The NCAA "knew or should have known that their actions or inaction in light of the rate and extent of sexual assaults reported and made known to [the NCAA] by male student-athletes ... would cause harm to female student-athletes and non-student-athletes at NCAA member institution campuses in both the short- and long-term," the lawsuit states.

A spokeswoman for the NCAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Michigan State said she had been unaware of the lawsuit against the NCAA and of a separate lawsuit against MSU filed by one of the women and had reached out to the school's general counsel, but she had no further comment Wednesday. A spokeswoman for Nebraska said she could not comment because of pending litigation.

The lawsuit criticizes the NCAA for failing to disclose the "special risks" related to sexual violence for female students and athletes, for not taking action against athletes reported to have committed acts of sexual violence and for not supervising employees responsible for addressing sexual violence. It also accuses the NCAA of a "failure to monitor" -- a technical term used in NCAA enforcement of member schools -- Title IX investigations and response processes at the respective universities.

It states that the NCAA is obligated to do these things because of specific language found in NCAA documents dating to 2010, including a sexual violence prevention toolkit created in 2016 and updated last year that reads: "The prevalence and damaging effects of sexual violence on college students, including student-athletes, are extreme and unacceptable. NCAA member schools have a responsibility to address this issue appropriately and effectively to make campuses safe for all students."

One of the named plaintiffs, Emma Roedel, was a sprinter at Michigan State when she said she was raped by a male teammate in March 2017.

"To be a part of a group really symbolizes it's not just one person going against the NCAA," Roedel said in an interview with ESPN. "By standing in a group, we're saying, 'Hey, this isn't just one of us. It is all of us. And if this is happening to all of us, you need to do something and take action.'"

Another named plaintiff is Capri Davis, 20, who played for Nebraska's top-10-ranked volleyball team until last fall, when she took a medical leave of absence and later transferred to play at Texas.

The complaint states that Davis decided to transfer in part because of how she said the university failed to appropriately respond to her report that two Nebraska football players grabbed her buttocks at a party and did the same to a friend who is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit. The report was made in April 2019 to the school's Title IX office that investigates sexual misconduct.

Although the lawsuit does not name them, a description of the men in the lawsuit indicates that the players Davis and her friend reported were redshirt freshmen Katerian LeGrone and Andre Hunt. In January, the school's Title IX office found them not responsible for the alleged groping incident involving Davis and her friend, according to the complaint.

Davis' friend, who is not named in the lawsuit, also told university investigators in fall 2019 that she had been raped in August 2018 by LeGrone and another teammate, according to the lawsuit. The school notified her in January that "no finding was being made against" the two players, according to the lawsuit.

LeGrone and Hunt have been criminally charged with first-degree sexual assault in connection with a report a different female student made in August 2019 that the two men had sex with her without her consent. For that incident, Nebraska's Title IX office found them responsible for sexual misconduct last fall, and they were expelled as of April 3.

Hunt and LeGrone have been named in several additional police reports of alleged sex offenses filed with Lincoln police since news of the university's findings in the August case became public in December, according to records obtained by ESPN and a source familiar with those records. The alleged offenses, which include the alleged August 2018 rape reported by Davis's friend, occurred between August 2018 and April 2019. Charges have not been filed in any of them, according to the records.

Attorneys for the two men have said their clients are not guilty of rape, and the university's decision should have no bearing on their criminal cases, which are pending.

As of Wednesday, the two men were in the NCAA's transfer portal. One of the complaints in the lawsuit filed Wednesday pertains to how the NCAA allows athletes who have been "accused or convicted of sexual assault or sexual violence to evade responsibility by transferring to other schools."

The NCAA "routinely issue[s] harsh punishments against student-athletes who accept payments in exchange for use of their likenesses, or who accept free meals, but they have no specific penalty for student-athletes who commit sexual assault," the lawsuit states.

Wednesday's filing is not a Title IX gender discrimination lawsuit, which female and male students typically file against universities accused of improperly handling complaints of sexual misconduct.

Roedel filed a separate Title IX lawsuit against Michigan State on Wednesday. Another one of the plaintiffs in Wednesday's lawsuit against the NCAA, Michigan State student Bailey Kowalski, in 2018 filed a Title IX lawsuit against the school that is currently pending. In Wednesday's lawsuit and her Title IX lawsuit, Kowalski states that she was raped in 2015 by three members of the Michigan State basketball team and that the school's counselors failed to properly respond to her report.

Among some of the specific instances the women outline in their complaint that they state affected their emotional and mental well-being and ability to continue their academic and/or athletic pursuits:

  • When a false rumor circulated that Davis was pregnant with the child of a football player, "media and communications staff at [Nebraska] advised Davis that she should address the pregnancy rumors," which Davis did on her Twitter account. But the lawsuit says no one at the school offered to investigate the sexual harassment she experienced related to the rumor or any support to deal with the fallout.

  • After a female swimmer at the America East Conference school reported in October 2019 to Title IX officials that she was raped by a male basketball player, she was told by an athletics employee that an informal Title IX process could not lead to her alleged perpetrator being suspended because it "'wouldn't be fair to other players' and it 'would have a negative impact on the community' who attended games expecting to see [him] play."

  • When Roedel, the Michigan State track athlete, told an assistant coach in March 2017 that she had been allegedly raped by a teammate, the coach told her that, "if she pursued any claims against [the male teammate], no one would like her, and that because Roedel is 'pretty,' she would become a 'distraction.'"

  • Former Nebraska student Sheridan Thomas stated that her grades suffered after she said she was raped in August 2015 by a male student-athlete, and she asked someone in the Title IX office to help her withdraw from a class. She said she was denied assistance unless she agreed to open a formal investigation, which she was afraid to do and waited to do until January 2016. The resulting investigation found that the male athlete had not violated university policy. According to the lawsuit, Thomas' witnesses weren't interviewed, there were factual errors in the report, and some of her information was omitted.

The lawsuit also criticized the NCAA for disbanding the Commission to Combat Campus Sexual Violence in August 2018. The commission, which had been created two years earlier by the NCAA board of governors, had adopted a policy on campus sexual violence and in June 2018 recommended that student-athletes' participation on the field be directly linked to their behavior off the field, according to the complaint.

In 2010, Kathy Redmond, founder of WeLEAD (formerly the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes), corresponded with NCAA president Mark Emmert about why the NCAA didn't do more to address sexual violence, which is referenced in the lawsuit. She said this type of lawsuit against the NCAA has never been filed.

"This lawsuit comes at a time when the NCAA is being pushed regarding its policies toward student-athletes, where their concern for student-athlete wellness and safety is being challenged," she wrote in a text message Wednesday.

David Ridpath, president of the Drake Group, a think tank dedicated to protecting academic integrity in college sports, said the NCAA is likely to respond to this lawsuit the way he says it often does, which is to deflect responsibility back to the member institutions.

"I think they're making a great argument, but I think from a legal perspective, there are lawyers who will question, 'Is there a contractual obligation between the NCAA and the athlete?' and in many cases they've been able to get out of that," he said. "They're not a state actor. They're a voluntary association."

He said the lawsuit will send a message regardless of how it proceeds in the courts.

"It doesn't have to go to a jury for it to be effective," Ridpath said. "It can shame the NCAA into doing something better to protect the athletes, specifically female athletes."