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‘Fat talks’ and a reckoning: How college runners forced reform at Wesleyan University

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                                John Crooke


    John Crooke

In early March, 36 Wesleyan University track and cross-country alumni signed a letter describing a culture of rampant body shaming and eating disorders in the program that they said a prominent coach had fostered.

In pleading for major changes, the athletes said the coach, John Crooke, had held “fat talks” with runners, telling them to lose weight to run faster. He told them to keep food diaries and check in with him to review their logs, they said in interviews. Athletes were told to not discuss those meetings with other runners.

Now, although the athletes had not explicitly called for his dismissal, the university confirmed today that Crooke retired last week. He did not answer requests for comment, and officials at the Connecticut private school declined to elaborate on the decision.

He is leaving the university after the athletes’ anger and frustration redoubled when a four-month investigation that concluded in July found he had not violated any policies and administrators placed him in charge of leading a cultural shift in athletics to address the concerns.

The outcry over the coach was part of a wave of public denouncements by female athletes against coaching they have found abusive and exploitative.

The Wesleyan letter was organized by Yuki Hebner, a 2017 alumna who said she was motivated to do it after reading about Mary Cain, once America’s most promising young runner, who said she experienced years of ridicule about her body from Alberto Salazar, her former coach. Salazar has denied the accusation. Hebner said she recognized her experience in Cain’s words.

“I knew it was still happening on my team,” Hebner said. “The amount of pain that it caused me is preventable.” She reached out to fellow alumni, and runners responded in droves.

Hebner said multiple student-athletes had complained to athletic department officials and to Crooke himself about Crooke’s behavior since at least 2012, and nothing had been done. Many runners developed eating disorders and needed treatment. Many say they still struggle with their relationship with food and body image.

The university publicly announced that it had begun an investigation on March 2, the day the letter was published, and in an email to students added that Crooke had been placed on leave.

In their letter, the former runners didn’t initially demand that Crooke be fired. They asked for sweeping changes to how coaches and administrators treat student-athletes and respond to red flags.

“This letter is not to disparage or oust the coach, but rather to shed light on a highly toxic culture that has gone unaddressed at Wesleyan for generations and continues to damage women long after they leave the program,” Hebner wrote.

The letter included a list of recommendations focused primarily on the cross-country team alongside 24 testimonials and a timeline documenting when runners had gone to the athletic administration to voice their concerns.

In the end, the university found that Crooke had not violated any policies and reinstated him. He sent an email to the cross-country team in mid-July to prepare for the 2020 season.

“Through a review of all information and interviews with more than 50 alumni and current students on the team, past and present assistant coaches and parents, it became clear to the investigative team that the experiences with Coach Crooke were extremely personal and varied widely with individual experience and expectation,” Deborah Katz, a university spokeswoman, wrote in an email shared with The Times.

Crooke was tasked with engaging with the current athletes “to discuss next steps” alongside the director of athletics, Mike Whalen, according to an email sent by Debbie Colucci of the university’s office of equity and inclusion.

Crooke and Whalen did not respond to requests for comment.

Alumni and current student-athletes said they were galled that the coach was anointed the leader to reform the environment he created. They also say the recommendations the university put forth were vague and lacked mechanisms for enforcement and accountability.

“There needs to be an outside body requiring them to make the changes specified in our demands,” said Rachel Unger, a 2015 graduate who helped organize the campaign.

Current student-athletes, who did not sign the letter in Wesleying, the student-run blog where it was published, went directly to administrators to express their displeasure with the ruling, and threatened to quit if forced to run under Crooke.

One current runner, who asked to remain anonymous as to not jeopardize her position with the team, said the coach had to go. “The only way I can see real change happening on our team is with him gone,” she said.

Team members said they learned of his departure today hours before publication of this article.

Under Crooke, who would have entered his 21st season as head coach, the women’s team has not qualified for the NCAA Division III championship since 2009, and the men’s team last advanced in 2015. Retention on the team has been low.

Claire Palmer, a 2014 graduate, said she remembers learning of the “fat talks” from more senior teammates during her first semester. But she was told not to worry; the coach wouldn’t give that talk to first-year students.

Yet Brianna Parsons, another 2014 graduate, said she was brought into Crooke’s office in her first year and was asked to lose weight to improve her race times. “It’s hard to think back about it,” she said, pausing. “I do remember the phrase ‘overweight for a runner.’ “

Crooke told Parsons to write down everything she was eating and to review the journals with him, she said. He told her to keep their discussions private because, he said, it would “cause people to stress and worry and it would negatively affect the team’s performance,” Parsons said.

In the spring of 2012, Palmer said, she spoke with then-outgoing athletic director John Biddiscombe and incoming athletic director Whalen about the culture on the track and cross-country team. While her weight had not been addressed by the coach, she felt responsible to speak up on behalf of her teammates, she said, bringing their testimonials to the meeting.

She said they asked her what she wanted to change in her relationship with the coach. When Palmer said she was not concerned about her relationship with the coach, the meeting came to a close.

“If I was a better, faster runner, maybe he would have had the ‘fat talk’ with me and I could talk about my own experience,” she said. “I was trying to bring to light a cultural systemic problem. They weren’t hearing that.”

When runners are told to drop weight, they can quickly — and dangerously — find themselves lacking the energy required to maintain their health, said Dr. Kathryn Ackerman, the director of the Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

Ackerman pointed to Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports, a common syndrome in female runners marked by the loss of a period or missed periods, low bone density, disordered eating, and debilitating injuries.

“People are not unidimensional,” said Dr. Paula Quatromoni, an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Boston University and an expert on the intersection of sports nutrition and eating disorders.

The university had stopped short of responding to specific demands the former runners had made and experts have recommended.

Unger, in an email to administrators, pointed out line by line what she believed they had failed to address and asked for additional, clarifying information. “We need to make sure the pressure stays on,” she said.

Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan, responded to her email a few days later. “This will be a process with plenty of consultation, especially with current students and with alums, like yourself, who remain very engaged with the program,” he wrote Friday.

The coach’s retirement from Wesleyan went into effect the same day.

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