A law firm released a report Tuesday on allegations of physical and emotional abuse in Rutgers University’s softball program that described inappropriate behavior by coaches and a lack of communication on the part of administrators but stopped short of recommending discipline.
The release of the report, which had been requested by Rutgers after an investigation by NJ Advance Media, ended a seven-month probe by the Lowenstein Sandler law firm of allegations by players that coach Kristen Butler and volunteer assistant coach Marcus Smith, her husband, fostered a climate of fear, intimidation and abuse after they took over in the 2019 season.
Ten of 22 players left the program after the 2019 season, the report said.
Butler and Smith could not immediately be reached for comment. An email to Butler was not immediately returned, and her voicemail box was full and not accepting messages. Contact information for Smith was not immediately available.
Players claimed that they endured dangerous conditioning sessions, sometimes as punishment, that regularly left them in distress and that they were subjected to physical and emotional abuse, NJ Advance Media reported in October 2019.
In one instance, players were forced to run sprints after the team went $6 over budget at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. In another, a player vomited but was told by Butler to “straddle your puke and go, you can do it,” according to Tuesday’s report.
While the report concluded Butler’s use of conditioning was not a best practice, three experts retained by the law firm said it wasn’t unusual, leading the report’s authors to conclude that “the prevalence of this practice cautions against viewing Butler’s acts as wanton or malicious.”
The report noted that Rutgers’ shift to the Big 10 conference changed the school’s focus from a “culture of participating to a culture of winning.” Butler, who played at the University of Florida and had coached at the University of Toledo before coming to Rutgers, inherited a team that had finished last in the conference with a 4-16 record in 2018 and led it to a sixth-place finish and an 11-12 league record in 2019.
In interviews with investigators, Smith denied that, among other allegations, he entered a team bus when players were changing and looked at text messages a player had received from her boyfriend and commented on them. Some players said they felt they couldn’t report Smith’s behavior to Butler because he was her husband.
He also denied several players’ accounts that he told a player who was recovering from a knee injury and didn’t want to participate in a “trust” exercise that involved falling into other players’ arms that he would push her if she didn’t jump.
The player, who has since transferred, told investigators she suffered panic attacks after the episode. The report concluded Smith’s denial was not credible and said Butler should have been more sensitive.
The report recommended that Rutgers review its policy of allowing spouses to coach the same team and more thoroughly vet spouses before hiring them as assistants. It also recommended the school be more transparent about how players’ complaints are handled.
Butler was described as being receptive to criticism and willing to make changes. Players on the 2020 team told investigators she was “very different in her coaching and her relationship with the players this year, resulting in less anxiety and players no longer afraid to go to practices.”
In an emailed statement, Rutgers President Robert Barchi said the report “noted the significant improvements from 2019 to 2020. It also contains a number of recommendations, some of which are already underway.”
Rutgers’ recent athletic history has been marred by problems. The university fired Petra Martin, the women’s swimming and diving coach, in November 2017 amid mental and verbal abuse allegations. Football coach Kyle Flood and athletic director Julie Hermann were fired two years earlier in the wake of an academic scandal and the arrests of several players.
Basketball coach Mike Rice was fired in 2013 after video showed him shoving, grabbing and throwing balls at players in practice and using anti-gay slurs. Athletic director Tim Pernetti also was fired.