A Lehigh University track coach has apologized to his team for complaints lodged by multiple athletes regarding inappropriate and unprofessional language and actions.
In a July 1 email to the 120-member team, shared with The Brown and White by a former Lehigh track athlete, track and field coach Matt Utesch said that he is remorseful and that the result of this past year’s coaching evaluation “hurts.”
“Some of the themes that have emerged from last season involve perceptions that I am insensitive to a number of issues from mental health/stress, religion, race and sexual orientation,” he said in the email. “…I am saddened and disappointed that I may have caused undue stress or anxiety for some of our team. … I ask that you would have the courage to discuss with me those times when I may make you feel awkward or uncomfortable.”
The Brown and White was tipped to the allegations by a former athlete, who has since transferred, and investigated numerous allegations against the coach, reviewing reports and emails shared by sources and reaching out to dozens of individuals close to the team in order to obtain confirmation of certain claims.
In particular, five female track athletes, one assistant coach and the father of a prospective student-athlete shared with The Brown and White their experiences of inappropriate, often sexually-charged comments, on record. All of the alleged incidents occurred within the past two years.
Several of those who shared allegations reported their experiences through the proper equal opportunity and compliance reporting channels with varying degrees of resolution. Among the mandated reporters who have fielded complaints include Athletic Director Joe Sterrett, President John Simon and Title IX Coordinator Karen Salvemini.
One former senior track athlete, who requested anonymity for fear of losing her scholarship, quit the team in part due to several incidents that she says made her uncomfortable. The athlete met with Sterrett in January 2019 to discuss her concerns.
She then filed a Title IX report on May 4 and has yet to receive a response, which exceeds the 60-day response guidelines set forth by the university, though the university reserves the right to take longer if it deems it necessary. Salvemini said she tries to keep all individuals involved in a case updated on the timeline, noting it’s more important to “take time to do the investigation right, not rush the process to meet a deadline.”
“(Utesch) started doing things like kicking me on the butt (with his foot),” the senior athlete said. “Every time I was by myself or with another teammate, he would kick us on the butt.”
Sarah Bond, a sophomore thrower, has officially transferred to Missouri Southern State University, citing a lack of competitiveness and professionalism in the Lehigh program, as well as her alleged inappropriate experience with Utesch. She said she made the decision to transfer around the time of spring break 2019.
Bond wrote a summary of her experiences on the track team and sent that summary to Sterrett and Simon on May 1. The summary, which was later forwarded to Salvemini on May 7 by Simon, alleged that Utesch “smacked my butt with a stick” as she was walking to the track following a March meeting to kick off the spring outdoor season. She also met with Sterrett on May 1, and Bond said she did not confront Utesch about the unwanted motion.
“I did not ask for this motion nor did I hint toward it being welcome,” Bond wrote in the summary, which she shared with The Brown and White.
After a May 14 meeting with Salvemini, Bond said she decided to file a Title IX report against Utesch detailing her alleged inappropriate encounter. Bond received a message from Salvemini on July 1 in which the Title IX coordinator said she had briefed Simon on the matter and offered the president recommendations for next steps, noting she will sometimes consult with other administration officials depending on the situation. She also told Bond she would be following up with her. Bond is waiting for further correspondence.
Sterrett confirmed that he has fielded concerns against Utesch.
“Concerns, yes. Unprofessional behavior that was deemed to be unconventional and perhaps questionable in terms of professionalism,” Sterrett said. “I have not had anybody express to me directly a concern about inappropriate sexual behavior. I want to be really clear about that. I have not. But uncomfortable language, perspectives shared that left someone feeling less comfortable — that has been shared in the context of preseason and postseason review.”
When asked to confirm that no inappropriate sexual conduct occurred after reading Bond’s report of being hit on the butt with a stick, Sterrett said “any interpretation or comment” on Bond’s summary would need to come from the Title IX office.
Salvemini said she cannot discuss cases filed through her office.
The President’s Office issued a general statement pertaining to the handling of concerns from athletes.
“Concerns received by the President’s Office and Athletics are reviewed and referred to the appropriate university offices tasked with the expertise and knowledge to investigate the concerns,” read a statement from Simon. “Student-athletes concerned with the leadership of their team are encouraged to contact Joe Sterrett … to discuss the circumstances. Dean Sterrett and I are fully committed to ensuring a positive experience for the university’s student-athletes.”
In other circumstances in which Title IX reports were not officially filed, meetings and correspondence of concerns were conducted with an administrator — and at times, with the coach directly.
Brianna Wanbaugh, a junior thrower, said Utesch once “looked me in the eye and told me, ‘Racism does not exist,’ while patting my leg at the same time.” While Wanbaugh said she didn’t feel the contact was sexual in nature, she said “him touching me as a young woman of color made me feel powerless.”
Wanbaugh said student athletes on the team have discussed feeling uncomfortable with how Utesch touches them.
Wanbaugh’s alleged incident followed a conversation in which Utesch allegedly told Wanbaugh a story about how “he went to high school with mostly minorities, and then when he went to college, he hadn’t seen a person of color in so long he had to do a double take when he passed a black person on campus.”
Wanbaugh said she met with Sterrett on April 18 to discuss her concerns and then met with Utesch on June 27 to discuss her standing on the team. She said she is considering leaving the track team and said Utesch seemed saddened by the conversation because he “was coming to realize maybe he wasn’t making as good an impact on these kids’ lives like he had hoped.”
Wanbaugh, however, noted that Utesch presented several courses of action to help rebuild relationships.
Student-athletes are not alone in their reports to the administration over Utesch’s behavior.
Ki Soo Burkhauser visited Lehigh’s campus from Oct. 7-8, 2017, with his daughter, a senior high school track athlete being recruited to the track and field team at the time. Burkhauser said that from this visit and a recruiting dinner, he developed some “reservations” about Utesch. In an April 24, 2018, email sent to administrators Sterrett and Simon, and later shared with Salvemini, Burkhauser shared his concerns.
“Perhaps most disturbing, as a father of four children, of which three are daughters, was the fact that Coach Utesch, at the final dinner, made repeated sexual and misogynistic comments about a specific runner…, commenting on physical attributes of the runner, saying that she was ‘hot’ and commenting that his son also found her to be ‘hot,’” Burkhauser said in his email.
Ryan Yurchick, an assistant coach who was with the team from 2008-2012 and 2016-2018, confirmed that he and Burkhauser had a separate conversation regarding the father’s concerns. Yurchick, who was at the recruiting dinner but did not hear the comments that Burkhauser alleges Utesch made, confirmed that he and Burkhauser discussed, either that night or the next day, the father’s concerns and the alleged comments made by Utesch at the dinner.
Yurchick said Burkhauser’s complaint against Utesch wasn’t the first he’s heard of that nature.
“There were things that were brought to my attention by athletes, by recruits, that were kind of off-color — things that shouldn’t be said around specific people or maybe anyone, people of specific genders or demographics,” Yurchick said.
In an email chain forwarded to The Brown and White, Salvemini responded to Burkhauser on April 25, 2018, and said she would be “initiating a formal University investigation into the allegations of harassment and retaliation that you have reported to the University.” But after one more email correspondence on April 27, 2018, in which Burkhauser said he was “taken aback” by the tone of Salvemini’s response and was disappointed in what he perceived as the “absence of any concern for (his daughter),” and with his daughter’s May 1 decision days away, Burkhauser said he offered to come to campus to speak to Salvemini in person about his concerns. Salvemini did not respond to that offer until the end of the day, and Burkhauser said the lack of “urgency” from the administration to his concerns prompted the family to look elsewhere for his daughter’s collegiate athletic career.
Burkhauser said he never heard further from Salvemini about the investigation she said she would launch.
While Salvemini said she can’t talk about cases, she did offer an outline of the reporting process.
Salvemini said generally that Lehigh maintains three avenues for an individual to report his or her concerns: through Salvemini’s office, Lehigh police or the Gender Violence Support Advocates. Two reporting forms exist: the gender violence reporting form and the discrimination, harassment, retaliation or bias incident reporting form. The latter may be submitted anonymously.
The university’s 2017-18 Equal Opportunity Compliance Coordinator’s report stated that all athletic coaches and staff went through training sessions on the topics of harassment, discrimination, retaliation and sexual misconduct. The trainings also discussed mandatory reporting, reporting options and available support resources, according to the university report.
Ultimately, Salvemini said it is up to each victim to determine how to best handle the specific circumstance. She said she can make victims aware of protection from abuse orders and their criminal options, as well as connect people with community organizations or the police so the victim can learn more information. She can also offer options regarding support resources and university processes and interim support measures.
“There are certain circumstances, however, where I am required to move forward, like in a case where we have multiple reports of someone being accused of certain behavior and if we are worried about the community at large,” Salvemini said.
And Noreen Byrne, a captain of the track and field team during the 2019 season, said she experienced a negative verbal encounter with Utesch during her sophomore year.
She met with Stacy Shiffert, the associate athletic director for business and budget, on April 15 to discuss concerns that some of Utesch’s comments made her uncomfortable.
Byrne said Shiffert was accommodating and that she left the meeting feeling at peace but wasn’t clear on what direct changes would be made.
“Most of this behavior has become very normalized and brushed off by people on the team,” Byrne said.
Meanwhile, one more student athlete shared allegations with The Brown and White that she said was not reported to university officials primarily because she said she didn’t know if it was worthy of a formal report. The claim has been supported by multiple sources.
The junior track athlete, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being cut from the team after speaking out, said she recalled one incident involving alleged inappropriate language from Utesch. The team was in Richmond, Virginia, at an outdoor meet, when one sophomore cross-country student-athlete was looking for a seat on the bus and chose not to take an empty seat next to a female athlete because he “didn’t want to fall asleep on her.”
“Matt says to him, ‘What? You don’t want to sleep with her? Everyone would love to be able to say they slept with her,’” the junior athlete said. “The girl didn’t say anything because the last thing you want to do is talk back to your coach before an event.”
Meanwhile, the former track athlete who filed the Title IX report said although the two agreed on a solution that allowed her to keep her scholarship while not remaining a part of the track program, she wasn’t convinced Sterrett was committed to making positive change when it came to the larger concerns regarding Utesch’s behavior.
“He didn’t really want to address what Coach Matt did,” she said. “He kept saying he didn’t want to dwell on the past, but he wanted to move forward and focus on the positive.”
Sterrett said he takes each concern seriously and tries to resolve each one.
“All of them (have been addressed with Utesch). … Number one, it is important for our staff to acknowledge that a perception by a team member of a coach’s behavior could and did create a level of discomfort, stress or anxiety, and to discern whether the coach is willing to make a sincere commitment to being more effective,” Sterrett said. “Often, there is an educational component to this process of learning that helps a coach to understand why a student could feel as they do and how the coach can function differently in the future. The willingness of a coach to accept that interactions with a team member were uncomfortable for the student, and then to be sincerely committed to changing behavior, is essential. Every individual circumstance needs to be evaluated and never dismissed. That is part of the department’s commitment and the university’s commitment.”
Utesch said he wants to learn how to improve.
“As you go through that (sexual harassment) training, the first step is for someone to say, ‘That makes me feel uncomfortable.’… I just know that someone feels uncomfortable, and I apparently am responsible for that, and I want to learn to deal with those situations — and that’s what the university and I are working on,” Utesch said.
Utesch stopped short of confirming whether someone has directly said to him, “That makes me feel uncomfortable.”
“I don’t want to cross a line of privacy for someone else,” he said. “I don’t think I should answer that question.”
Still, some were caught off guard by Utesch’s email to the team.
Utesch has a record of success as Lehigh’s track and field head coach for the men’s and women’s teams. A two-time Patriot League Coach of the Year, Utesch said that every track-related school record comes from someone his staff has coached, and the top 10 performances in every event have all also come from athletes who he or his staff has coached.
Senior triple jumper Cate Shippee said she has had “a really positive experience” on the team and was “definitely surprised” to read Utesch’s July 1 email acknowledging complaints against him.
“I was honestly upset for him,” Shippee said.“I felt pretty badly that he’s dealing with this right now because I’ve never experienced any of this first hand. I had a great year, I’ve had a great experience with him, he’s been there for me for many different topics and aspects of my life off the track.”
Brooke Astor, a former Lehigh track athlete and a current assistant coach for the track and field team, will be going into her sixth season as a member of the coaching staff. She said she “wouldn’t trade anything” for her job with the program.
Though Astor says she has a strong and open relationship with Utesch, she said “it is difficult to hear everything and to know what people are saying” in terms of complaints against the head coach.
“I truly believe that he wants what’s best for the athletes, even if that means he has to change,” Astor said.
Courtney Avery, a high jumper who graduated from Lehigh in 2017, spent her four years on the track team under the tutelage of Utesch. She maintains that Utesch is “one of the most genuine, caring and hardworking coaches” that she has worked alongside.
Rising junior sprinter Sam Tapera said he hasn’t seen any instances of inappropriate behavior by Utesch and that he has a good relationship with the head coach, but added that “the generational divide … can be difficult for him to relate to this generation.”
The women who came forward to share their allegations say they hope others will use their voices, too, to bring about positive change.
Bond said she reported her experiences to administrators in order to “to save others from … the emotional and physical distress” of Lehigh’s head track coach.
Though she has already begun training at her new Missouri school, she said she is encouraged by her former teammates standing up to the “manipulation from a very powerful position.”
“It is discussed constantly on the track team, but very rarely do people have an outlet for it,” Bond said. “But now that more people are talking, it’s very encouraging. One experience won’t take care of what’s happening right now — it will be all of these voices on top of each other that will make the biggest difference.”
Wanbaugh said until individuals start speaking up, she thinks it’s hard to know an individual is being mistreated when there’s nothing to compare the experience to. She said the “most problem-solving result would be Matt changing his ways or leaving,” but expressed doubt toward the chances of that happening, feeling that “Lehigh seems to want to cover things up instead of solve them.” Wanbaugh specifically referenced two recent lawsuits the university is defending, one in which the former Health Center director is alleged to have sexually harassed students and staff and one in which a black professor alleges the university did nothing when she claimed she told the university a former professor was sexually harassing her.
Wanbaugh said between feelings of discomfort, miscommunication with the coaching staff and a lack of quality instruction, “there was always a problem.”
“So I just felt like any type of speaking about it might change this situation,” she said.
Utesch, meanwhile, said while he denies he harbors any type of bias, “these complaints exist,” and he’s working “with the department and Lehigh University to become more sensitive to these kinds of things and address them in new and different ways.” He said he’s “excited to work to improve.”
Wanbaugh said despite the challenges she has faced on the team, she’s proud of the culture the team has fostered.
“Although this past year has been tough for individuals on the team in more ways than one, I’ve noticed some of these hardships have brought us together and helped leadership on the team to mature,” she said.
This report was compiled by The Brown and White’s Investigative Team. If you wish to talk about an experience or uncomfortable situation with a professional, there are resources available at the university, including Lehigh’s Title IX coordinator or Counseling Center.