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GW basketball players report coach’s ‘verbal and emotional abuse’; many fled school

Mike Lonergan has coached the George Washington men’s basketball team the past five seasons. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

In early April, shortly after his team celebrated a postseason championship, a George Washington men’s basketball player visited a campus Title IX coordinator to log complaints about Coach Mike Lonergan. Lonergan, the player believed, had created an offensive, intolerable environment, evidenced in his mind — and in the minds of many of his teammates — by the spate of transfers during the coach’s five-year tenure.

When the player shared the complaints, which included Lonergan denigrating players and making repeated graphic remarks about the school’s athletic director, Title IX coordinator Rory Muhammad’s response surprised him. The player was told, he later recalled, that the school had looked into Lonergan’s behavior previously and that the issue had been “handled.”

“I understand you met with Coach about similar issues before,” the player wrote to Muhammad on April 16 in a follow-up email, a copy of which The Washington Post obtained. “But this concerns me and my teammates because it seems as if nothing was taken seriously. This worries me because if I (and others) choose to leave the University, word of Coach Lonergan’s verbal and emotional abuse, as well as player mistreatment would eventually be known among the greater community.”

After each of the past four seasons, three players have transferred out of GW, bringing the total to 13 in Lonergan’s five years. Over the past two seasons, according to people familiar with the situation, the school has fielded complaints from players about Lonergan. While university administrators addressed the concerns with Lonergan, according to a school official, there have been no public consequences.

For some players, leaving GW represented the best of a handful of ineffectual recourses. They could transfer, which would mean leaving their school of choice and being forced to sit out a year of competition per NCAA rules. They could entrust campus officials to scrutinize Lonergan’s behavior, which, to their understanding, already had happened and resulted in no significant change. Or they could stay and play for a coach whose behavior they viewed as bizarre and abusive.

“I don’t think the guy should be in sports,” one former player said. “I don’t think what he said should be tolerated. I would like to stay at GW. I will not play for Mike Lonergan.”

Lonergan, who declined multiple requests to be interviewed for this story, responded to a list of players’ complaints with an emailed statement.

“I will not respond to anonymous, unfounded allegations,” Lonergan said. “These types of accusations have already been investigated by the University and found to be groundless.

“Those who know me know that I conduct myself and run my program with integrity. I have a long record of graduating student-athletes who go on to be successful in life. I am proud of my student-athletes’ success on the court and in the classroom, and I am focused on preparing for the upcoming season.”

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Muhammad did not return an email, and a school spokesman said he was not available to comment. Interim Provost Forrest Maltzman declined to comment through a spokesman. Despite repeated requests, the school made no officials available for interviews. The school declined to answer questions about its inquiry into Lonergan or even acknowledge it, saying it does not comment on personnel issues as a matter of policy.

“Everyone at our university has a responsibility to create a community that includes and supports all our students, faculty, and staff,” President Steven Knapp said in a statement released through a spokesman. “That certainly applies to our Department of Athletics. Whenever and wherever we receive an allegation of misconduct, we conduct a fair and thorough investigation, and we take action as appropriate on the basis of what that investigation reveals. Investigations take time, and I don’t think anyone ever benefits from a rush to judgment in advance of the facts.”

[The school issued a statement Thursday night saying it was bringing in “outside” counsel to assist in the investigation of the allegations against Lonergan, in reaction to this article, which was posted on the Post’s website earlier in the day. The university said that it “will not tolerate retaliation” against players who have expressed objections to the coach.]

The Post granted anonymity to current and former George Washington players and staffers because they feared reprisals that could affect the future of their careers.

After Lonergan was made aware that players had spoken to The Post on the condition of anonymity, players said, he called his players in an effort to determine the identities of those who had shared their experiences. He later emailed current players to warn them of the publication of this story, calling the allegations against him “lies,” two people who saw the email said.

The three most recent departures this offseason leave only one player remaining from the five-member class recruited just two years ago. The transfer rate across college basketball has skyrocketed in recent seasons, more than doubling in the past five years to more than 700 players, according to research by ESPN. But players said the rash of departures at GW stems from a factor other than desire for more playing time or a better chance at success: Lonergan.

“A lot of kids transfer because they have delusions of grandeur,” said one former member of the GW men’s basketball staff. “Nobody transferred from GW with delusions of grandeur. They just transferred because they hated him. They couldn’t stand another second of him.”

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An untenable situation

The Colonials have experienced success under Lonergan, a respected strategist and tireless recruiter. They received a bid to the 2014 NCAA tournament, have won at least 22 games the past three seasons and this year redeemed a disappointing conference season by winning the National Invitation Tournament. In 2014, GW rewarded Lonergan by extending his contract through 2021.

Beneath the surface, the accomplishments have been accompanied by tumult and turnover. According to multiple players, Lonergan’s critiques crossed the line from constructive to mean-spirited. He told one player his son would always be on food stamps. He told another, in front of the team, he should transfer to a “transgender league,” multiple players said.

One person close to a former GW player said he “went through hell” playing for Lonergan because of constant personal comments and critiques. One former player said he attended therapy and considered quitting basketball because of Lonergan’s language and actions toward him.

The school’s actions following the 2014-15 season suggest an awareness of some problem. University administration met with Lonergan to address the language he used, a school official said. Athletic department officials requested practice tapes to review Lonergan’s behavior, people within the program said. Senior associate athletics director Ed Scott traveled with the team this season and attended practices, people within the program said. Scott’s duties, according to GW’s website, include “overseeing NCAA compliance, educational services, community and career services, student-athlete discipline and welfare, along with diversity and inclusion efforts.”

One player described Lonergan’s demeanor as tamer this past season, but the target of his invective shifted toward Athletic Director Patrick Nero, and the nature of Lonergan’s comments frequently made the season untenable for many players.

“That 2014-15 season is probably the worst year of basketball I’ve ever been a part of, because of the environment,” one player said. “There was a definite point made by the athletic department to change it. But honestly, it didn’t change much at all.”

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Lonergan and Nero arrived at George Washington at almost the same time, Lonergan after a stint as Vermont’s head coach and Nero after serving as the commissioner of the America East conference, of which Vermont is a member. Nero advocated for Lonergan’s hiring, according to a former school official, but their relationship soured over several years and deteriorated after the 2014-15 season.

Players said Lonergan shared his distaste for Nero in a manner both inappropriate and outlandish. Five current and former players said Lonergan made explicit remarks about Nero, among them telling them to avoid Nero because he was obsessed with them.

Five current and former players said Lonergan told players Nero requested the practice tapes so he could masturbate while viewing them in his office. The players said Lonergan also told them Nero had engaged in a sexual relationship with a member of the team. Players said they found those comments to be shocking and offensive, with no grounding in reality.

“Mr. Nero has always been a strong advocate for student-athlete welfare throughout his career, including at George Washington University,” Nero’s attorney, Debra Katz, said in an email. “He has a well-earned reputation for focusing on the needs of the student-athletes as they prepare for the next, very important stage in life. He will not be deterred from advocating for students by false and reprehensible remarks.”

Players said that Lonergan’s comments to them regarding Nero this season often centered on disputes with his boss. The players said Lonergan complained to them about Nero looking into his behavior, and the nature of the conversation quickly become awkward and inappropriate. The comments, players said, often would occur in one-on-one settings as opposed to in group meetings.

“I was in the gym, shooting,” one player said. “He comes up to me, starts talking about the AD. ‘Can you believe he thinks he’s going to get me? Don’t worry, I have one of the best lawyers. I know what he wants.’ . . . He would say it in a very serious tone.

“It was always weird. When he goes on those rants, it’s like, how do you react? How do you respond to something like that? Players kind of just stayed away from him. We knew every time it would be you and him, he would go on some kind of weird rant. We would just kind of stay away from him. He did a great job in terms of winning. Off the court, something weird is always going to come out.”

Seeking recourse

Once the season ended, one player says he expressed concerns to Nero and shared details of a conversation he had with Lonergan in the fall. Later that day, April 6, Nero sent the player an email, a copy of which The Post obtained. “Obviously, this was not something that was easy for you to share and for me to hear,” Nero wrote.

“I have reached out confidentially to Mr. Rory Muhammad, the University Title IX Coordinator,” the email continued. “It is Mr. Muhammad’s position on campus to advise on such matters and university policy requires me to report our conversation to him.”

During the next week, emails show, the player went to Muhammad. Days later, after meeting with Muhammad, the player sent Muhammad the follow-up email, detailing specific dates he heard Lonergan make offensive comments.

“We know that Coach Lonergan made some comments to a player on October 9th, because that is the day a recruit was visiting campus,” the player wrote to Muhammad. “However, these comments were not made on just one day. They were made to multiple members of the team on different dates ranging from late September to early October.”

Muhammad replied: “I will take steps to reach out to other players identified based on an anonymous report that they may information [sic] related to what we discussed. Feel free to contact me if you need to.”

It is unclear how Muhammad proceeded. The Office of Civil Rights has no record of any Title IX investigation at George Washington, a U.S. Department of Education spokesman said. No players contacted by The Post said they had heard from the school regarding complaints about Lonergan.

The player “did a great thing, going to the AD and Title IX department,” another player said. “If they didn’t do anything, what am I supposed to do?”

Experts said George Washington did not have a legal obligation to take the issues to federal Title IX authorities. But they also said the school would be in violation of Title IX if it did not investigate the players’ complaints about Lonergan or if it could be proved Lonergan smeared Nero in retaliation.

“They have an obligation to make sure the school is operating an environment where there is no sexual harassment,” lawyer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a Title IX expert and a former Olympic gold medal swimmer, said when apprised of the players’ complaints. “He is sexually harassing both the athletic director and the athletes.”

Lonergan, 50, grew up in Bowie and attended Archbishop Carroll High in Northeast Washington, where he played point guard before playing at Catholic University. He gained local renown for leading Division III Catholic to prominence over 12 seasons as head coach, winning a national championship in 2001. He served for one season as an assistant on Gary Williams’s staff at Maryland and took his first Division I head coaching position in 2005 at Vermont, where he stayed six seasons before coming to George Washington.

“I won’t always get the best responses on the student-athlete questionnaires, but I promise you our guys are treated with great respect,” Lonergan wrote in a self-assessment in 2007, according to documents obtained from the University of Vermont. “They are a part of a special program and will be proud to have been a part of it when they leave here.”

Many Colonials players expressed pride in George Washington, saying they cherished teammates and loved the school itself. Some who transferred lamented not finishing their careers there. In the end, they felt they had no choice.

“I was at GW for . . . good years,” one former player said. “Me and some of my best friends, we just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Scott Allen and Mark Giannotto contributed to this report.