New claims surface in case against former head coach, Alexis Meeks-Rydell, and University of South Alabama alleging that the university was aware of abusive situation and failed to take action to protect its student-athletes
MOBILE, Ala. — The University of South Alabama and former head women’s volleyball coach, Alexis Meeks-Rydell, face additional allegations of sexual harassment and physical and emotional abuse of student-athletes in an amended federal lawsuit filed Friday in Alabama. New allegations made by additional plaintiffs in the amended complaint make clear that the university was aware of the issues within its women’s volleyball program and failed to take adequate steps to address the situation and protect its student-athletes. This is illustrated in a new allegation brought to light by Friday’s filing – that associate athletic director, Chris Moore, perpetuated the abusive situation in the university’s women’s volleyball program.
The case was originally brought by former University of South Alabama volleyball players Rachael DeMarcus and Alexis Silver against Meeks-Rydell. Friday’s amended complaint adds six additional former players as plaintiffs: Caitlin Tipping, Meaghan Jones, Hannah Kazee, Hannah Johnson, and two unnamed individuals, referred to as Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2. The amended complaint also adds Moore and current senior associate athletic director, Jinni Frisbey, as defendants. The original defendants included: Meeks-Rydell, the university’s Director of Athletics Joel Erdmann, and former assistant coaches Rob Chilcoat and Patricia Gandolfo.
The plaintiffs all came to the University of South Alabama as student-athletes pursuing their academic goals, while also competing as NCAA Division I athletes on the school’s women’s volleyball team. Once on campus, however, they were routinely subjected to blatant sexual harassment and sexual, physical, and emotional assault by Meeks-Rydell. The lawsuit alleges Meeks-Rydell created a climate of fear and intimidation among the volleyball team players. She regularly overtrained players and coerced them to practice or play while injured, in violation of NCAA bylaws. She often would verbally abuse injured players, ridiculing and accusing them of faking injuries and forcing them to play through serious medical conditions, including concussions and asthma attacks, as well as ankle and knee injuries.
The complaint also alleges that Meeks-Rydell physically and sexually abused her players, forcing one to “cuddle” with her in hotel room beds during team road trips, pinching players’ buttocks as they exited the team bus, and forcing them to engage in “floor hugs” in which team members laid on the ground while Meeks-Rydell laid on top of them. And on at least one occasion, Meeks-Rydell, apparently upset with DeMarcus, slapped her across the face. This abusive behavior continued, unchecked, throughout 2019 and 2020, with the direct knowledge of defendants Erdmann, Chilcoat, Gandolfo, as well as other university officials, all of whom either could have, or should have, reported or stopped the abuse but failed to do so.
“Alexis Meeks-Rydell, the University of South Alabama, and the other defendants had a duty to ensure the safety of its student-athletes. Not only did they fail to do that, but they also actively conspired to cover up a situation that they knew was detrimental to these young women,” said Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmermann, plaintiffs’ counsel and a partner at DiCello Levitt Gutzler. “It’s become all too common for collegiate athletes to endure this type of abuse, but what makes this case particularly shocking is how brazen and willful the University was in coercing one of its students to write a fraudulent letter to the NCAA to cover up its knowledge of the situation. These women—and all women, for that matter—deserve so much more, and we are committed to ensuring they get justice.”
According to the lawsuit: “Meeks-Rydell’s relentless and pervasive pattern of harassment and abuse occurred in violation of federal and state laws, as well as in violation of National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) regulations established to protect student-athletes’ educational opportunities outside of their chosen sport. The University had a duty to protect its students from such abuse and the University failed to do so. The University knew of Meeks-Rydell’s misconduct, through its officials and agents who were physically present during and directly aware of the physical and emotionally manipulative and abusive verbal harassment. These officials and agents were in positions to remedy the circumstances, and refused to act to protect Plaintiffs and other student-athletes. The University acted with deliberate indifference to Meeks-Rydell’s actions and the abuse to which Plaintiffs were subject. Senior associate athletic director Frisbey assisted in encouraging the abuse Plaintiffs suffered. As a result of the University’s actions and failures to act, Plaintiffs were deprived of their enjoyment of educational opportunities and programs to which they were entitled as student-athletes at the University of South Alabama.”
“Meeks-Rydell’s abuse was so severe that my clients not only suffered prolonged physical and psychological issues, but they were left with no choice but to abandon their athletic and academic careers at the University of South Alabama. Meeks-Rydell’s inappropriate and abusive conduct frequently and consistently occurred in the physical presence of the other coaches and staff,” said Kenneth P. Abbarno, a DiCello Levitt Gutzler partner and plaintiffs’ counsel. “I sincerely hope that we, as a society, are not becoming desensitized to the abuse of young, female athletes at the hands of authority figures who they should be able to trust with their physical and emotional well-being. We’ve seen far too many instances of abusive behavior toward athletes who were afraid to speak up due to fear of retribution from their coaches and institutions. We have heard from the parents of several plaintiffs that Director Erdmann had been contacted directly and informed of this abusive behavior. This abusive and illegal mistreatment of young athletes simply needs to stop. It can no longer be condoned, ratified, or ignored.”
Meeks-Rydell was hired as the university’s women’s volleyball team head coach on Dec. 31, 2018, and served in that role until she resigned in February 2021. She currently serves as an assistant coach at Purdue University Fort Wayne but was placed on administrative leave in September 2021 after the original complaint was filed. Former assistant coaches Chilcoat and Gandolfo have also moved on from the university to serve as assistant coaches at Brown University and the University of West Florida, respectively. Moore, Frisbey, and Erdmann remain at South Alabama.
The case is Rachel DeMarcus, et al. v. University of South Alabama, Alexis Meeks-Rydell, Joel Erdmann, Rob Chilcoat, and Patricia Gandolfo, Case No. 1:21-CV-0380-KD-B, pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, Mobile Division. A copy of the complaint is available upon request and the attorneys are available for media interviews.
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