The University of California-Berkeley has launched a formal investigation into Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton and executive associate athletic director Jennifer Simon-O’Neill’s handling of dozens of allegations over the course of years that former Golden Bears women’s swimming head coach Teri McKeever bullied swimmers on an almost daily basis, the Southern California News Group has learned.
Attorneys hired by the university have begun contacting current and former Cal swimmers and their parents as part of a follow-up investigation to an eight-month, $2-million probe that led to McKeever’s firing on January 31, according to three people familiar with the investigation.
The current investigation comes against the backdrop of months of mounting criticism of Cal from former and current swimmers, including Olympic gold medalists, and prominent financial boosters of the Golden Bears athletic program that Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill and other university employees prioritized athletic success over athlete well-being. Specifically, swimmers and their parents maintain that Simon-O’Neill and Knowlton’s inaction led to dozens of athletes being subjected to McKeever’s verbal, emotional and physical abuse and in some cases even enabled the coach’s bullying.
Golden Bears boosters, some of whom have made seven-figure donations to the Cal athletic program, have lobbied Chancellor Carol T. Christ for months to fire Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill, arguing their failure to effectively address McKeever’s behavior caused swimmers to be endangered and damaged the university’s reputation.
The McKeever investigation’s heavily redacted nearly 500-page report substantiated allegations of bullying and discrimination over a period of decades first disclosed by the SCNG last May, finding that McKeever, who coached Cal to four NCAA team titles, discriminated against swimmers on the basis of race, national origin and disability, including using the n-word, and abused athletes in violation of university policy.
After interviewing 147 people and reviewing 1,700 documents, attorneys for Munger, Tolles & Olson, the Los Angeles-based law firm hired by the university, concluded “by a preponderance of the evidence that Coach McKeever discriminated against certain student-athletes, in certain instances, on the basis of race, national origin and disability.” The attorneys also found McKeever’s behavior “toward some, but not all, student-athletes in some instances was abuse and violated University policy.”
To date, 44 current or former Cal swimmers, including Olympic medalists and NCAA champions, 23 parents, a member of the school’s men’s team, three former Cal coaches, a former administrator and an athletic department employee have told SCNG that McKeever, the only woman to serve as head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team, routinely bullied swimmers, often in deeply personal terms, or used embarrassing or traumatic experiences from their past against them, used racial epithets, body-shamed and pressured athletes to compete or train while injured. Swimmers and parents have also alleged that McKeever revealed medical information about athletes to other team members and coaches without their permission in violation of federal, state and university privacy laws and guidelines.
Nine Cal women’s swimmers, six since 2018, have told SCNG they made plans to kill themselves or obsessed about suicide for weeks or months because of what they describe as McKeever’s bullying.
Cal declined to comment. Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill have repeatedly declined to comment on the McKeever investigation and criticism of their handling of athlete and parent complaints.
McKeever has denied any wrongdoing. Her attorney said she will pursue a wrongful termination lawsuit against the university. McKeever’s firing did not include a financial settlement.
In recent weeks and months, Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill have privately tried to distance themselves from McKeever, according to multiple sources.
But university administration and athletic department officials including Knowlton, Simon-O’Neill and Sandy Barbour, Cal’s athletic director from 2004 to 2014, received between 2010 and 2022 more than 30 complaints from Cal swimmers or their parents alleging bullying behavior by McKeever, according to interviews, university documents and emails obtained by SCNG.
Despite the repeated complaints, Cal has paid McKeever just under $3 million in total compensation since 2010 and has given her eight raises in her base pay between 2010 and 2019, according to her contract and other university financial records. McKeever’s annual base salary has increased by more than 77% since 2010.
McKeever is a godmother to one of Simon-O’Neill’s children. Simon-O’Neill was hired by Cal in 2008 as director of Olympic sports operations. She was named associate athletic director in 2013 and after additional promotions was named to her current position, executive senior associate AD, chief of staff and senior women’s administrator in 2019. She was the direct supervisor of the women’s swimming program until the responsibility was removed from her last May, a day after the publication of an SCNG report in which 19 current and former Cal swimmers, six parents, and a former member of the Golden Bears men’s team portrayed McKeever as a bully who for decades has allegedly verbally and emotionally abused, swore at and threatened swimmers on an almost daily basis.
Knowlton has been Cal’s AD since 2018.
At the time of McKeever’s firing, Knowlton wrote to Cal swimmers that he “was disturbed by what I learned in the course of reading through the report’s 482 pages that substantiate far too many allegations of unacceptable behavior. I want to apologize, on behalf of Cal Athletics, to every student-athlete who was subject to this conduct in the past, and I want to thank everyone who had the courage to come forward and share their story with the investigators.”
Thomas Newkirk, McKeever’s attorney, said he was surprised by Knowlton’s letter.
“Jim Knowlton, why he is apologizing to athletes when he knew how Teri coached the entire time he was there is beyond me,” Newkirk said. “It makes no sense.”
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