Nine former University of Louisiana-Lafayette softball players are claiming the university discriminated against them and failed to properly investigate and respond to a wide range of alleged incidents from sexual harassment to the use of racist language by other players.
Among the complaints are two allegations that university President Joseph Savoie inappropriately touched the female players, including while hugging them during a post-game celebration.
Savoie denied those claims.
“These claims are absurd. My wife and I have been dedicated supporters and fans of this program for years,” Savoie said in the statement. “After games, we would often congratulate the team with hugs and high fives, always together. These interactions were always done in public, with many witnesses. To imply anything inappropriate happened is ludicrous.”
The discrimination complaints were filed under a federal civil rights law governing education. The Title IX allegations say the victims first suffered when the university’s athletic department failed to properly maintain the softball field, hire adequate medical training staff and otherwise provide resources on par with what men’s teams received.
The university compounded the discrimination, the complainants say, when it retaliated against them for openly supporting former coach Michael Lotief, who they believe was fired for speaking up about the university's treatment of the team.
“They were locked out of their facilities, they were denied places on the team. Many of them were told their scholarships would no longer be valid,” said Allison Jones, an attorney representing the former players. “There is just a whole slew of things that were retaliatory against these young women, all because they wanted to support their coach who was supporting them in Title IX violations.”
The former players also claim they were subjected to racial slurs and sexual harassment by teammates, and that a member of the interim coaching staff had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a player after Lotief was gone.
Two of the complaints include allegations against Savoie, one identifying him by name and the other implicating him by title. In both cases the allegations of inappropriate touching are vague as to when the offensive behavior occurred and in what circumstances, other than to say it was at team events or post-game celebrations.
“Dr. Savoie made various student-athletes uncomfortable by being drunk after games and giving inappropriate hugs,” Aleah Creighton wrote in her complaint. “I personally felt very uncomfortable to the point that I started avoiding these hugs.”
Creighton claimed the administration were presented with these and other complaints on multiple occasions, but ignored them each time.
Alyssa Denham complained of “inappropriate contact by administrator/President to players including groping, kissing and inappropriate contact during events,” adding that "all concerns were dismissed."
The nine complainants, including Creighton and Denham, either did not respond to calls and emails, referred questions to Jones or declined an interview request. Jones spoke generally about what the complaints entailed but would not discuss the circumstances of specific allegations, including those against Savoie.
In addition to providing a statement from Savoie, who is a member of The Advocate's advisory board, the university denied the broader discrimination claims, calling them “patently false and baseless.”
"The University has been fully compliant with the law and all complaints have been promptly and effectively investigated," the university's statement says. Savoie's wife Gail also said via the university's media relations office: "My husband and I are some of the biggest supporters of softball. I’m very close to the team and have even traveled to away games. After the games I often hug the players to congratulate them, as many people do. There was never anything inappropriate done by my husband or me. These claims are untrue and hurtful.”
The university has said Lotief deserved to be fired. It said previously that Lotief fostered a cult-like atmosphere in which he tried “to gain trust, control, secrecy and authority over players,” while seeking to convince them “that he is the only person who cares about them.” A university report portrayed him as a verbally and psychologically abusive enforcer and cited an instance in which he allegedly used a rape reference to criticize the team’s performance.
One player harmed herself in an undisclosed manner afterward, and Lotief is accused of then telling her that “next time she should try harder to kill herself,” according to the report.
Lotief was also accused by several players of regularly using the word “p---y” to attack players and to make inappropriate jokes. Those accusations are contained in letters to the administration that were cited in the investigative report. One letter writer said Lotief used the word “on a daily basis, multiple times, throwing the word around at girl after girl.”
The names of the letter writers are redacted in copies the university provided to The Advocate last year.
"Michael Lotief's termination was not related to gender equity claims," the university said in a statement Wednesday, adding that he had violated university conduct and workplace policies, while "subjecting student-athletes and coworkers to sexually hostile situations."
The nine Title IX complaints refer to being barred from the team locker room — and denied access to personal belongings — after appearing at Lotief's side with more than a dozen other players at a Nov. 1 press conference, during which Lotief accused the university of ginning up false accusations against him to silence his calls for equal treatment.
Lotief’s supporters filed their complaints with the Office for Civil Rights within the Department of Education in late April and early May and Jones held a press conference Wednesday in Shreveport, where her office is based, to call attention to them.
The Department of Education, which is investigating the complaints, could either pursue its own federal legal action against the university or leave it to complainants to decide how to proceed, Jones said. Ultimately, she said, the former players want the university to address the complaints without going to court.
“What we hope is that the school will say, OK, we are going to come in and we are going to try to resolve these issues,” Jones said, “which is what they should do, but they have not shown any initiative to do.”
Jones said in an interview the former players approached her for representation as a group after they had filed the complaints. The timing of the press conference Wednesday, more than four months after the complaints were filed, was a matter of scheduling and coordination, Jones said.
None of the complainants are currently on the team and only two are still at the university, according to a media relations assistant working for Jones.
Some of the former players say the new coach, Gerry Glasco, derided them for their weight, encouraged them to quit the team and assigned them menial tasks during practices while others participated in team exercises.
Chelsea Lotief, the fired coach’s daughter, said in her Title IX complaint that players were bullied into recanting complaints against the program or giving false statements to justify the coach’s firing. Players who complied with the administration’s agenda were “rewarded with jobs, scholarships and perks,” while those who did not were harassed, ridiculed and not allowed to practice or play in games, she stated in her complaint.
Chelsea Lotief also said in her Title IX complaint the athletic department failed to investigate “instances of physical and/or sexual violence against team players,” as well as “inappropriate contact by administrators to players.”
Shae Schreckengost said in her complaint she had “personally witnessed physical violence and abuse from coaching staff directed against student athletes, and also witnessed abusive sexual relationships between student athletes.”
The administration did nothing after these instances were reported, Lotief and Schreckengost claimed.
“I have also witnessed a growing hostile environment being cultivated within the softball team because no one is holding anyone accountable,” Schreckengost said.
In the statement late Wednesday night, Athletic Director Bryan Maggard said the accusations are “ridiculous.”
“I treat every student-athlete I encounter with respect,” Maggard said. “I take this accusation very seriously and will vigorously defend myself and the university against these egregious lies.”